Business boosters admit Atlanta in 'crisis' amid effort to boost city's economy

6:35 p.m Monday, June 25, 2012 Metro Atlanta / State news

Atlanta is in crisis. That's not the message you'd expect to hear from the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the pro-business group that usually puts a cheerful face on the region's future. But it's at the heart of a plan the group unveiled Monday to jump-start the region's economy.

The stark description is a focus of the "Forward Atlanta" initiative, a plan developed for the chamber to help the region regain its mojo. It puts more of an emphasis on fostering startups and developing businesses already here rather than luring companies to relocate.

"Part of the problem is because we grew so fast for so long that even when we settled down, it doesn't feel normal," said Roger Tutterow, a Mercer University economics professor who said "crisis" is an exaggeration. "Once you go from being toward the top of the heap toward more middle of the pack it feels like unfamiliar territory."

Sam Williams, the chamber's president, said, "It's very simple: This is the worst economic downturn in our lifetime and Atlanta is lagging in the recovery. If you're in a crisis, the first thing you've got to do is admit you have a crisis. And that's what we're doing. If you don't have a big and bold plan to get out of it, then our economy won't recover until 2020 or beyond."

The business leaders come armed with daunting figures. Metro Atlanta is only expected to recover about 19 percent of the jobs it lost during the recession by the year's end, the chamber said, far behind many of its regional and national rivals. And the region has lost almost as many jobs as it created since 2000, growing only about 50,000 jobs during the decade. It's a far cry from the booming 1990s, when Atlanta added 70,000 jobs to 80,000 jobs a year.

The region is still struggling with unemployment around 8.6 percent and falling residential real estate prices.

But some experts say Atlanta has already overcome the worst of the rough ride.

Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo, applauded the strategy of improving on the region's assets and focusing more on expansions. But he said the region is in a "frustratingly slow economic recovery" rather than the depressing doldrums of a crisis.

"This is a challenging economic environment for everybody. But it feels a lot worse when you're used to leading the country in nearly every economic statistic," said Vitner. "Atlanta for the longest time was the number one market for new job creation and relocation. And we've been stuck in a huge funk for the last 15 years."

The chamber is casting the next few months as a pivotal point in the future of Georgia's economic engine.

It unveiled its plan a month before residents vote on a one-percent sales tax to fund transportation projects. The chamber has long said the referendum would jump-start the economy and help the region compete with rivals in Texas and North Carolina, but officials said the July 31 vote is only a piece of the overall package.

They said the region's economic trend can be reversed and that following a strategy developed over nine months by Boston Consulting Group could make Atlanta one of the top three U.S. metro areas in job creation over the next decade.

It includes a new focus on developing"sub-clusters," such as wireless telecommunications and health care information, that have already taken root in Atlanta.

"The old model of, 'Let's spend most of our time trying to get companies to relocate here,' is not a bad model, and we need to continue to do that," said John Brock, the chief executive of Coca Cola Enterprises. "But we need to put in place an ecosystem in metro Atlanta that's all about job creation from new metro Atlanta startups."

The campaign will be costly. Williams estimates it will cost at least $30 million. But he and other supporters say it's pivotal for Atlanta's future. "If we don't leverage what we have available, we will get left behind," said Paul Bowers, the chief executive of Georgia Power.

Box:

Highlights of the chamber's plan:

1.) Spark short-term and medium-term growth by passing the transportation referendum and concentrating on growth from existing companies and startups in niche industries, such as wireless mobility and health information.

2.) Forge new ties with universities to boost startups and grow venture capital programs to attract new investment.

3.) Advocate for Port of Savannah expansion and ensure completion of long-term reservoir projects.

4.) Market Atlanta as a "top university city" and launch a campaign to tell the city's story across the region and country.

5.) Work with universities to strengthen missions for new business startups and create new investment paths to fund the companies.

Metro area unemployment rates (April)

(not seasonally adjusted)

Birmingham 5.9

Charlotte 9.1

Dallas 6.5

Detroit 8.7

Nashville 6.5

Orlando 8.2

Phoenix 6.6

Raleigh 7.4

ATLANTA 8.5

Tampa-St. Petersburg 8.5

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