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Metro Atlanta’s new economic development plan evokes ties to mythical phoenix

Phoenix rising A new five-year, economic development plan for metro Atlanta portrays the region's economic vitality as similar to the era when civic leaders adopted the mythical phoenix as Atlanta's emblem, for it's ability to rise from its ashes. Credit: pinpicsnow.com

By David Pendered

Given that Atlanta’s symbol is the phoenix, it’s only natural that the region’s latest economic development plan begins by emphasizing the worst. Implicitly, the plan calls on the “can do” attitude of locals to fight back from wrack and ruin.

Smoothing porcelain

Products built in the Toto U.S.A. manufacturing plant in Atlanta are shipped to dealers throughout the Americas. Metro Atlanta’s new economic development plan encourages more companies to adopt a similar export strategy. File/Credit: Donita Pendered

The five-year Atlanta Metro Export Plan was released last week after a year of research conducted with help from the Global Cities Initiative, a joint project of Brookings Institute and JPMorgan Chase. Participants include Georgia Department of Economic Development; Office of the Mayor of Atlanta; U.S. Export Assistance Center; JPMorgan Chase; UPS, metro Atlanta regional economic development partners; and the Metro Atlanta Chamber, according to the full report.

The report doesn’t pull punches.

The opening of the first chapter of the MEP states:

  • “The recession that began in 2008 hit metro Atlanta especially hard. The downturn caused problems for other U.S. metros too, but the recovery for metro Atlanta, which was already slipping behind its peers in export intensity when the recession started, has been particularly lackluster. In fact, according to 2012 data, the region lagged behind other metros in getting back to pre-recession levels of peak economic performance.”

Readers who haven’t had their wind knocked out by that opening continue to the second segment:

Jobs lost, Metro Export Plan

Metro Atlanta trails other cities in the recovery of jobs lost during the great recession. Credit: Metro Export Plan

  • “Nowhere is statistical evidence of metro Atlanta’s weak recovery more stark than in past job numbers. The Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Forward Atlanta Five- Year Strategic Plan for 2013-2017 pointed out that by the end of 2012 metro Atlanta had recovered only 19.5 percent of the more than 200,000 jobs the region lost during the recession. That rate of recovery for jobs, which directly affect the quality of life throughout any metro area, ranked dead last among the top 25 U.S. metros – behind peer metros such as Houston, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Boston, Tampa and Detroit.”

Thankfully, the plan provides a glimmer of hope in the next segment: “The Path Forward.” However, the plan offers no false hopes that the path will be easy, and suggests that companies that don’t boost exports can expect to stumble:

Growth rates for exports

Growth rates for exports from metro Atlanta began plunging after the great recession and have not recovered. Credit: Metro Export Plan

  • “Between 2013 – 2018, 83 percent of international economic growth is projected to occur outside of the United States. The Atlanta MEP developed as part of the GCI, will set a path for new opportunities for metro businesses to expand into both mature and developing world markets where urbanization is creating a new global consumer class. This is important because companies that engage in global markets are proving to be more diversified and sustainable than companies that don’t maximize their export potential.”

After diagnosing the region’s economic ills in the first three pages, the report provides a market assessment that contains equally distressing nuggets such as:

  • “Services drive a significant portion of metro Atlanta’s economy, but they are slowly losing ground … services-providing industries employ 90 percent of the metro Atlanta workforce of 2.4 million.”

Just when things can’t get worse, they don’t.

The report shifts into its “phoenix” phase. Atlanta adopted the phoenix as its symbol in 1888, aligning itself with the mythical bird that burns with its nest, only to arise from the ashes as a young bird. The image seemed fitting to civic leaders, who adopted it two decades after the Civil War.

Phoenix rising

A new five-year, economic development plan for metro Atlanta portrays the region’s economic vitality as similar to the era when civic leaders adopted the mythical phoenix as Atlanta’s emblem, for it’s ability to rise from its ashes. Credit: pinpicsnow.com

The next six pages of the 16-page report outline a game plan to boost the export of goods and services to foreign lands. There’s a lot of work to be done. The report pays a good bit of attention to marketing and messaging – Atlanta’s proven strategy of setting outlandish goals and striving hard to meet them.

Just as the report harkens back to the phoenix, it doesn’t miss an opportunity to mention the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Early the report, readers are reminded that the region can do better than the lower rungs of the nation’s economic ladder:

  • “A coalition of civic and business leaders — the City of Atlanta, Invest Atlanta [Atlanta’s development arm], the Metro Atlanta Chamber and JPMorgan Chase — knew that the city that had hosted the 1996 Centennial Olympics could do better.”

The report outlines specific goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics.

The goal is a declarative statement:

  • “Increase economic impact of exports, particularly in quality jobs, for metro Atlanta by expanding a sustainable export ecosystem and culture.”

The objectives are:

  • Improve metro Atlanta’s export intensity to match, or exceed, the average export intensity for the top 100 metros in the U.S. within five years;
  • Grow metro Atlanta’s exports at a higher rate than the metro economy over a five-year period;
  • Increase number of exporters in metro Atlanta, reaching an average of 75 confirmed, new exporters per year by end of a five-year period.

The strategies are:

  • Enhance and better coordinate metro Atlanta’s existing export assistance ecosystem/community;
  • Drive new interest in exporting and grow demand for export assistance services;
  • Establish a global Atlanta identity to drive demand for Atlanta-made products and services.

The ongoing work to implement the plan is to be coordinated by the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Office of Global Commerce. The chamber is to have assistance from an advisory board and an unspecified number of working committees.



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. DH-ATL June 9, 2015 10:22 am

    The report is using data that by now is 3 1/2 years old–  By more recent reports the Atlanta economy is gaining between 80,000 and 100,000 jobs per year. While we have many problems to be solved the ‘crisis’ is not as dire as it looks (in this report anyway)–Report

  2. Wormser Hats June 9, 2015 11:27 am

    None of the report’s objectives or strategies are going to come to pass without including a clear and prominent goal of improving the marketability of the metro workforce through bold and visionary education, as well as political and business leadership that’s willing to promote investment in the requisite premium of a happy, healthy, and efficiently-mobile citizenry. 

    By all appearances, the captains of our fabled phoenix aren’t poised to see it rise from the ashes of the recession, but – out of compulsive (manic) risk aversion – keep its wings tucked and display only a flash of its tail-feathers hanging off the aerie on which it’s perched.Report


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