By Maria Saporta
When GeorgiaForward was created four years ago, it was modeled after the successful North Carolina Emerging Issues Forum that had been launched by former Gov. Jim Hunt in 1986.
So it was fitting that when GeorgiaForward forum held its first forum three years ago in Macon that the keynote speaker was Anita Brown-Graham, director of North Carolina State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues.
It was through the annual forums and eventually the Institute that Gov. Hunt and the top business, nonprofit and government leaders in North Carolina tackled the state’s toughest issues of health, education, transportation and the environment — finding consensus and often translating that into action and implementation.
The Institute for Emerging Issues — described as a “think and do tank” — was credited for helping catapult North Carolina into one of the leading states in the Southeast and one of the fastest-growing ones in the country.
When Brown-Graham was asked in 2010 to comment on how North Carolina views Georgia, she tried to be as polite as possible.
“North Carolina talks a lot about being a leader in the Southeast,” she said. “The truth is that we are more concerned about being a national leader rather than a regional leader. We are looking at states at the top of the list.”
At the time, the group of statewide leaders who had formed GeorgiaForward envied the statewide consensus that had been reached in North Carolina. And they imagined all the benefits that the Peach State could enjoy if it too could get the various constituencies in Georgia to agree on a shared vision for the future.
GeorgiaForward held its fourth annual forum from July 11-12 at Georgia Tech’s Conference Center in Atlanta, and invited Brown-Graham back to give a keynote address.
But this time, Brown-Graham’s tone had changed.
“When I came to Macon three years ago, I was bragging,” she said. And then she jokingly asked whether she had been set up to speak in Atlanta just days after the New York Times had written a scathing editorial with the headline: “The Decline of North Carolina.”
The editorial blamed the new Republican majority in the state for the “grotesque damage” it was imposing on those less fortunate — leading to weekly Moral Monday demonstrations.
The last paragraph of the editorial may have been the most damning: “North Carolina was once considered a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness. In a few short months, Republicans have begun to dismantle a reputation that took years to build.”
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory responded in his own letter to the editor on the July 13th edition of the New York Times saying that the state “is on a powerful comeback: with significant movement on “vital reforms to tax policy, energy, education economic development and transportation.”
The McCrory, who used to be the mayor of Charlotte — the state’s largest city, then went on the attack.
“While it may not be apparent to the very liberal worldview of The Times, North Carolina’s new focus on reform is paying off. Already companies have announced plans to create more than 9,300 jobs in the state and invest more than $1.1 billion in facilities.”
Obviously the consensus that existed in North Carolina, not so long ago, has been splintered — testing the very core of what the Emerging Issues forum has been working on for decades.
All of a sudden, North Carolina and Georgia were back in the same (let’s hope not sinking) boat.
Brown-Graham said that it is estimated that 63 percent of North Carolina’s workforce will need some post-secondary education by 2018; and Georgia will been 61 percent. Currently only 38 percent of North Carolina’s workforce has a post secondary education (university or technical college) and Georgia only 36.4 percent.
A challenge for both states will be to improve the quality of education beginning from K-12 and going through college just to meet the future demand for skilled employees.
Asked to talk about what had changed in the three years since her last visit, Brown-Graham described that the Institute’s traditional formula of getting leaders from business, civic and government to build consensus was no longer enough.
“In the last two years, we have worked much harder to try to find issues where we can find consensus,” she said. “it’s become increasingly polarized with people coming to the table with not just an interest, but with a position.”
That parallels the national trends of having little cooperation or compromise between differing political parties.
“Now I find that our work is much more bottoms up,” Brown-Graham said, calling the current situation a tug-of-war. “It’s harder, but I’m not less optimistic. I think we are in a period of redefinition in North Carolina. How North Carolina sees itself. What kind of state do we want to be?”
Georgia also is facing the same issues. From the 1960s to 1996,
Georgia had been viewed as the progressive state in the South, and Atlanta was seen as a city entering the international stage.
But then after the let-down following the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and a period of economic adjustment with a deep recession, Georgia began losing ground.
But GeorgiaForward is an opportunity for us to reverse that situation.
At the end of the 2013 forum, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and August Mayor Deke Copenhaver spoke of ways to unify the state and get away of the notion of “two Georgias” — metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.
“I don’t believe in the two Georgias,” Copenhaver said. “So much of that is manufactured by politicians. I don’t think we are going to solve this through rhetoric. I want a healthy thriving Atlanta.”
“I agree,” Franklin responded. “I do think there are multiple issues around the state, solutions have to be collaborative.”
Copenhaver then told GeorgiaForward attendees how Gov. Nathan Deal had recently been to Augusta to talk about the regional Transportation Improvement Act, also known as T-Splost. The Augusta region was one of the 12 regions in the state to pass the one-percent sales tax.
Franklin said that maybe Atlanta could learn from Augusta on how to pass a transportation sales tax.
But both mayors said that Georgia’s cities need to be healthy for the state’s economy to do well.
“The state has a vested interest in the success of people who live all over the state, but especially those people who live in cities,” Franklin said. “So much of the personal income tax in the state of Georgia comes from cities. If the state were a business, we would care about where our revenue stream was coming from.”
And it’s those kind of conversations that make GeorgiaForward worthwhile.
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, said “the concept of
Georgia Forward was really created out of a discussion that started in downtown Atlanta No one was having a conversation across Georgia on what should be happening 20 years down the road.”
Perhaps one day, maybe Gov. Deal or Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed will see the value in joining the GeorgiaForward initiative and co-leading that conversation.