Two top Georgia counties provide contrasts in economic development strategies
By Maria Saporta
The two most populous counties in Georgia — Fulton and Gwinnett — are each taking steps to fine tune their economic development strategies.
At a time when Georgia’s prosperity has been declining compared to the rest of the nation and when it has been struggling with how to redefine itself in the new economy, both Fulton and Gwinnett are responding in kind.
But Fulton, the state’s largest county with a population of more than 920,000, is restarting a county-wide economic development game plan after years of having a splintered effort.
By comparison, Gwinnett — the state’s second largest county with a population of more than 805,000 — has just launched Partnership Gwinnett 2.0 — its second five-year economic development strategy.
The three-pronged effort proposes “comprehensive economic development” aimed at retaining and expanding existing businesses, assisting entrepreneurs and start-ups, focusing marketing efforts on “high value” sectors, designing and implementing an international business program, partnering with local, regional and state entities, and fostering incentives that best support the Gwinnett’s business development.
The second prong is to attract and retain “world-class talent,” through Gwinnett’s quality public schools as well as expanding its post-secondary institutions and enhancing development programs and resources.
Third, Partnership Gwinnett’s 2.0 will try to work on community development issues as well as leadership efforts. That includes improving infrastructure, enhancing arts, cultural and entertainment capacity, developing dynamic public spaces, leveraging Gwinnett’s diverse population, promoting Gwinnett within the county and supporting Gwinnett residents in need.
In reading the 64 pages in the Partnership Gwinnett plan, it is obvious that Gwinnett continues to have a more advanced economic development strategy than just about any other county in the state.
But that also reveals some of the problem that Georgia and metro Atlanta face in marketing themselves both inside and outside the state.
It is unrealistic to expect 159 counties to have individual economic development strategies and then expect for there to be a common or unified vision on how to sell and develop the Atlanta region and state.
On the other hand, it is only human nature (or this case county nature) to promote one’s own territory and hope that it excels in the game for new jobs and investment dollars.
The situation in Fulton County actually represents a kind of consolidation of economic development activity. Recently, the county has been split between North and South Fulton with each area promoting its unique assets. The City of Atlanta has been doing its own recruiting efforts through the Atlanta Development Authority.
The Fulton County Commissioners, at its last meeting on Dec. 7, voted to establish an economic development division.
The Fulton County Division of Economic Development would have an annual operating budget of $750,000 and it would be responsible for coordinating all services and activities associated with the county’s economic development policies and initiatives.
“We wanted to have a division that would sell the whole county — that would market the whole county,” said Fulton County Chairman John Eaves who was one of the sponsors of the bill. “It would brand and market the entire county and promote the diversity that exists in the county.”
Fulton’s economic development division was supported by the Fulton County Development Authority, and the bill was co-sponsored by Commissioners Joan Garner and Liz Hausmann and was supported by Commissioner Tom Lowe.
Historically, Fulton County has not had a county-wide, coordinated economic development policy since 2006 when Karen Handel was chair. According to someone close to the county’s initiatives, Fulton’s economic development department was “gutted” and had few resources for marketing.
Meanwhile, the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce was promoting its part of the county and South Fulton was doing the same. That helped reinforce the fact that the county was actually three entities, giving greater credence to the establishment of a Milton County in the area now known as North Fulton.
But by selling the entire county, it helps create a common vision and framework for keeping the county whole.
“I think it’s great,” said Al Nash, executive director of Progress Partners in North Fulton. “We are excited about the possibility of marketing the entire county — a county of nearly 1 million people. We have got the most powerful economic engine sitting there in South Fulton with the airport. This will help pull Fulton County together.”
The Gwinnett plan, put together by Market Street Services, had several recommendations that could easily be applied across the entire region.
For example, it urges for the creation of a countywide bicycle master plan to help make Gwinnett “one of the highest-capacity bicycle infrastructure communities in metro Atlanta. Such a plan would dovetail with the Gwinnett County Open Space and Greenway Master Plan to have better pedestrian connections between cities, neighborhoods and activity centers.
Couldn’t the whole region benefit from such an initiative?
The Gwinnett plan would seek to develop “distinctive, dynamic, and sustainable public places and activity centers” to help make the county more “competitive for the young ‘creatives’ that are transforming today’s economy.”
Again, the whole region and the state could benefit from similar initiatives.
Going forward, the real key to recapturing Georgia’s economic luster will be when all of its counties, cities, metro areas and chambers of commerce are able to work in tandem to restructure and reignite the state’s economy for the future.