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North Carolina has had a common agenda for decades; a divided Georgia has been left behind

Why does it seem as though North Carolina is moving forward while Georgia is slipping backwards?

At last week’s Georgia Forward Forum at Macon State University, there was at least one answer to that question.

The keynote speaker of the day was Anita Brown-Graham, director of North Carolina State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues.

Back in the 1950s, North Carolina’s social and economic indicators were at the same level of Mississippi. It was a rural, tobacco- and textile-oriented economy, reminiscent of the old South.

But in the past 50 years, North Carolina has been gaining momentum. In 1990, the population was in North Carolina was 6 million; today it’s 9.5 million; and by 2030, it is estimated there will be 13 million people.

“How did North Carolina acquire a long-range view? It was through collaboration, leadership and innovation,” Brown-Graham said. “It took time for the pay-off to become apparent.”

Last year, Research Triangle celebrated its 50th anniversary. More often than not, North Carolina is viewed as being a progressive center for scientific research and development.

North Carolina has been building a passenger rail network throughout the state, including implementation plans for high speed rail. Charlotte has been viewed as the banking center for the Southeast. And the state has become recognized for its enlightened development and alternative energy policies.

Just like Georgia, North Carolina is becoming more urban. In the next 20 years, nearly 90 percent of the growth will be in 15 counties, and 62 percent of the growth will be in just two counties — Wake County, which includes Raleigh; the Mecklenburg, which includes Charlotte.

The Institute for Emerging Issues has helped guide North Carolina through its transformation from a rural to an urban economy.

“We were created by Gov. Jim Hunt,” Brown-Graham said. “We spend all of our time thinking about North Carolina’s future. We identify big challenges and unique opportunities and enduring capacity for progress.”

Hunt spent four terms — 16 years — as governor of North Carolina — from 1977 to 1985 and from 1993 to 2001. Hunt continues to serve as chairman of the Institute for Emerging Issues.

“We are not a think tank. We don’t write a lot of white papers. We are conveners. We bring people together,” Brown-Graham said. “We ask people to identify the challenges and work on the response and then they go and work in their sphere of influence.”

About a year ago, the board of Central Atlanta Progress began getting concerned about divisiveness in Georgia and how there wasn’t consensus between the various areas of the state.

They decided to launch the Georgia Forward initiative to try to bring disparate elements of the state together in a one-day forum. In preparing for the forum, the organizers realized that communities all over the state have their own plans and visions — but there is no statewide vision or plan.

Compare that to North Carolina.

“We take on the big issues,” Brown-Graham said. “We decided North Carolina needed to reform energy.” The Institute convened the diverse constituencies, including utility companies and environmental groups — and brought them together “in the same room, at the same time.”

Out of those meetings, a consensus agenda was reached an presented to the General Assembly.

“It was the easiest energy-related bill to pass,” Brown-Graham said. “The work was done on the front end.”

Similar consensus agendas have been reached on infrastructure issues, health care and education — all with the common goal of moving North Carolina forward.

Brown-Graham explained that about 25 years ago, Gov. Hunt started the Emerging Issues Forum — a two-day conference to bring leaders of the state to focus on its most important issues.

“Around 2000, the governor realized that it was like a revival with great energy and a lot of excitement, and then everyone went back to their lives,” Brown-Graham said. “He wanted to make sure the good ideas that were put on the table were followed through.”

Another key strategic decision was to make sure the conferences were bi-partisan and that “every voice is being heard.”

Compare that to the current climate in Georgia, where partisan politics have almost brought the state to a stand still. Rural members of the state legislature often seem to be anti-Atlanta, while many metro legislators don’t have a clear understanding of the issues outside of the region.

So while Georgia’s leadership has become increasingly fragmented, it has given North Carolina an opportunity to pull ahead.

At the end of her talk, I asked Brown-Graham to comment on how North Carolina views Georgia today.

“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.”

In other words, that was Brown-Graham’s polite way of saying that it is looking at Georgia in its rearview mirror.

Let’s hope it’s not too late for Georgia to get its act together and develop a common vision for the state.

The Georgia Forward initiative could end up being our best hope for real progress.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. Anonymous August 30, 2010 8:40 am

    Very thoughtful piece and right on target.
    There are three statewide assets that NC can’t touch, however: ATL airport, the port of Savannah, and Georgia Tech. It would behoove Georgia celebrate these gems and invest heavily in them.Report

  2. Bill Todd August 30, 2010 8:41 am

    Ooops! I forgot to sign the comment #1.Report

  3. Jeff August 30, 2010 5:12 pm

    Yes, who would have thought the state that kept sending Jesse Helms to Washington would pass Georgia?Report

  4. Yr1215 August 30, 2010 5:34 pm

    But RTP, their budding intercity rail system, breadth of recreational amenities, and their deeper and bigger education system is enabling them to leave us behind as Saport states. GA is now provincial, NC national.

    As academics go – top insitutions:
    GA has Tech, Emory, and maybe UGA
    NC has Duke, UNC, Davidson, and NC State in Engineering

    All in all, I’d put NC ahead of GA in the educational talent pool bucket. GA’s state schools seem to generally lag NC’s state, and private schools.

    Redneck factor in NC seems to be less as well. Georgia would do well to find ways to significantly facilitate the rapid growth of non-Atlanta cities (Savannah, August, Macon) to get everyone on the same page. Economic development and rail transit are the two biggies that could help make this happen.Report

  5. jal August 31, 2010 8:53 am

    Having lived in Charlotte for 6 years, I find this positve NC spin laughable. Charlotte and Raleigh are constantly bickering about who gets what when it comes to state services. The tobacco industry still has way too much political power in NC. And, while Charlotte may have been seen as a banking center 5 years ago, that is hardly the case today with Wachovia gone and the imminient departure of BoA to NYC.Report

  6. Yr1215 August 31, 2010 9:50 am

    jal – I lived in Charlotte as well. While everything you say is true, the level of animosity between regions in NC is a fraction of what it is in GA. It is beyond dispute that NC is currently pulling ahead of GA.

    Their intellectual capital and intrastate mobility is far superior to ours.Report

  7. Travis Fain August 31, 2010 9:58 am

    Enjoy your work, but I have to say the perception that North Carolina has pulled ahead of Georgia, while true when it comes to trains, disintegrates quite a bit on closer inspection. I moved from Macon/Atlanta to the Raleigh area 4 months ago and have been shocked by the political problems NC has.


  8. Mason Hicks September 1, 2010 4:44 pm

    Brace yourself, but I’m agreeing with you on all counts… I grew up just outside Charlotte.Report

  9. Frank September 2, 2010 8:12 am

    North Carolina benefited from not having a single dominant metro area. Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham have surpassed Greensboro/Winston-Salem, but when I lived there in the ’70’s, they were roughly the same size and had similar statewide influence. Rural legislators bought into the vision of helping the cities so they could ultimately benefit as well. Transportation and education links throughout the state helped each urban and rural region to develop. I made fun of Jim Hunt when he first ran for lt. governor, but the man as governor seemed to really be able to bring the state together for making progress. I also think it helped that NC elected a Republican governor thirty years before GA managed it.Report

  10. Taz Anderson September 2, 2010 3:59 pm

    Why not use this as a rallying cry to actually do something about commuter rail, reduce the State tax,and really improve vocational education.
    Not everyone needs to be a lawyer or engineer, and what would you really pay for a good technician in 105 degrees?
    We have proven we cannot educate those who are not dedicated to our current curriculum.Let’s send these students to schools that serve them and give them a future.Report

  11. Robert Grunwald September 4, 2010 12:57 pm

    I have lived in Georgia for 17 years. I have neve seen such backward of thinkng in my life. When we move here in 1996 it was great place to live. Georgai was getting the olmpnics and the money flowing and jobs were plentiful. Yet since then there has no leadership to Georgia out it messs because of the divison it has between Metro Atlanta and rest of Georgia. In Georgia all hera is about how bad the school and Traffic is. Yet what make front page of the paper is our Govenror Praying for Rain. While it the hard working person of Georgia has get 3 hours before work time just to be on time at 11am. I never seen major city shut down Bus and threaten shut Tranist system due nobody cares. Yet just know are the major statse talking to each other hi speed rail to southeast. I wonder how many people would love to go Disney World, New orleans, Charloote, Durham by train. We have enought talk more action need to be. The bunch meeting around Georgia about how to imporve everything yet how people can get off work at 10am-to attend. RobertReport

  12. James R. Oxendine September 7, 2010 1:43 pm

    While the relative economic positions of the two states may be disputed, what is not in question is that North Carolina has followed a process that has measurable and benificial results. Georgia would be well served to follow that preecedent.Report

  13. BPJ September 8, 2010 3:04 pm

    Comment 12 is correct. There are arguments on both sides. North Carolina has managed to avoid the more extreme city/rural rivalry we have had in Georgia. On the other hand, Atlanta has a concentration of universities (Emory, Tech, GSU, Morehouse/Spelman, Agnes Scott, SCAD, Oglethorpe, etc.) which no NC city by itself can match. That matters, because concentrations of universites act as talent magnets (see Boston, Chicago, SF).

    Another area in which Atlanta has an advantage over NC’s cities is in the arts. The ASO is in a different class than any NC ensemble, and no one in NC is doing the kind of exciting programming the Atlanta Chamber Players, with its “Rapido” composition contest, does. Atlanta’s theatre community, led by the Tony-winning Alliance, is superior to NC’s. The same is true in the visual arts: the High is well ahead of its NC counterparts, and the same can be said of the Carlos, The Contemporary, and Atlanta’s better galleries.

    I say this not to boast, but to point out an area in which Atlanta’s, and therefore Georgia’s, competitiveness as a place to live is enhanced; support for these institutions (including state GCA support) is vital to our state’s future.Report

  14. Yr1215 September 8, 2010 5:53 pm

    Raleigh is all up in arms over the High Speed Rail coming through there.Report

  15. Yr1215 September 8, 2010 6:00 pm

    This won’t be popular. GSU is still second rate (but improving). Agnes Scott is tiny.

    SCAD is a tax scam – anyone gets in. Oglethorpe is almost about to lose accreditation.

    Atlanta’s educational institutions outside of Tech and Emory are a joke.

    Georgia is going down the path of Illinois and NY, with a single very big city, and then the rest of the state. This makes for very divisive and difficult state politics.

    We would be well served to make ourselves more like (god forbid) FL, NC, or best yet, TX. We need to figure out how to grow Savannah, Augusta, and Macon, and to a lesser degree, Columbus.Report

  16. Federico September 18, 2010 9:50 am

    Comment 13 makes an excellent point. The ‘creative class’ qualities of Atlanta are well ahead of anywhere else in the South, maybe excepting New Orleans (although quality of life there is an entirely different and complicated issue). Atlanta may be in relative decline due to intrastate politics and a lack of serious commitment to infrastructure investment, but it still enjoys the legacy of its industrial wealth through a fairly comprehensive and sophisticated offering of arts, entertainment and dining. Charlotte is nowhere near on this. To me, NC’s historic lack of a dominant city/metropolitan area also means that a true city culture never really formed. I was a graduate student in the Research Triangle and although the large population of educated, generally progressive people is enviable, no one city in that region is large or cosmopolitan enough for it to feel like things hold together– it remains very suburban and bland as a place to live. Atlanta needs to do everything it can to promote its big-city qualities and stop trying to compete with the suburbs or the rest of the state. If this continues to draw talented people to build up its existing knowledge-based service industries, Atlanta might have a shot at resisting the rest of Georgia’s seemingly increasing efforts to strangle it.Report


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