Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Married With Children was among the Fox Broadcasting network’s first group of successful sit-coms. The show managed an 11 season run, and featured the life of shoe salesman Al Bundy and his family. Al was a man of modest means getting through life with what seemed to be a deck that was always stacked against him. Whenever he was down and out, however, he could always remember that one time, back in high school, when he scored 4 touchdowns in a single game. With his self image stuck a couple of decades in the past, and despite evidence to the contrary, Al Bundy looked in the mirror every day and saw a successful big man on campus with a bright future ahead of him.
The Atlanta region has a certain self image of itself as well. For decades, Atlanta was on the move. The city too busy to hate was fast growing and brimming with economic activity. During the recessions of the 70’s and 80’s when the national economy suffered under flu like symptoms, Atlanta barely had a chest cold.
We offered cheap land, an available labor supply, a low cost of living, and a high quality of life. Companies came here because of an attractive business climate and low operating costs. Employees emptied the rust belt and came here for opportunities of employment. Metro counties frequently appeared on the nations’ fastest growing list. If Atlanta’s economy had been a 17 year old, it would have been fully capable of scoring four touchdowns in a single game.
The last decade has not been as kind to the Atlanta economy. Once a financial center, Georgia’s banking laws which protected local community banks from, being absorbed by larger institutions saw North Carolina’s big banks move Atlanta’s banking center to Charlotte. The high salaries pumped into the region by Delta Air lines were significantly pared after 9/11 as Delta shed jobs and cut wages to put itself back on a competitive footing. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, Georgia’s decades of building came to a screeching halt, almost eliminating the entire construction industry, one quarter of the state’s community banks, and the many industries related to real estate.
Georgia’s economic performance numbers are now quite different from our earlier glory days. The Brookings Institute has released its economic growth rankings of the top 200 metropolitan areas, and Atlanta ranks at number 189th on that list for 2010-2011. Our income growth was up just .4%, while we continue to shed jobs at a rate of -.9%. By comparison, the Atlanta region ranked 97th from 1993-2007.
The report notes that most Western European and North American economies ranked low the last few years because on ongoing recession, while metro areas in emerging economies show strong growth due to their relatively low base levels, Atlanta still ranks near the bottom of American metropolitan areas on the list. Only Kansas City (190), Richmond (191), and Sacremento (196) rank lower.
There is still a mindset among some civic and political leaders that the region is in a cyclical blip, and that once the fallout of the financial crisis is fully digested, growth and prosperity will return to normal. Atlanta and the rest of Georgia is at great risk if we assume that by doing nothing, we will return our peak performing glory days.
Land for growth is no longer plentiful and cheap. The labor available from construction trades is not well matched to the skills needed for more industrial construction projects. Georgia’s education ranking remains near the bottom of all states and is not a lure for today’s high wage technology industries.
All is not hopeless or negative. Georgia is a natural logistical hub. The world’s centers of commerce can be reached from Atlanta with a non-stop flight. We operate the largest exporting port on the east coast. Georgian’s have a natural entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to adapt to take advantage of change and opportunity.
What Atlanta and Georgia need is a coherent strategy. As an aging economy, we cannot expect to go back to former strengths we enjoyed as an emerging state that was cheap and undeveloped. We must present a vision, plan, and actions that will place the state in position to leverage core strengths in order to win future opportunity.
Georgia’s economy is at a crossroads. Sitting on a coach and reminiscing about better days will not make them return. Developing and implementing a long term plan to meet the challenges we face today is the best way to get Georgia on track to the economic successes of tomorrow.