Metro Atlanta struggling to regain lost momentum

Metro Atlanta remains a leader in the Southeast, but an achingly slow recovery from the Great Recession and growing traffic woes have taken a toll.
Metro Atlanta remains a leader in the Southeast, but an achingly slow recovery from the Great Recession and growing traffic woes have taken a toll.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

About Atlanta Forward 2015

This three-story series kicks off a year-long examination of the economic state of metro Atlanta. The key question we seek to answer: as our region recovers, do we have what it takes to attract the companies, jobs and talent we need to regain our pre-recession prosperity?

We’ll follow this theme all year, deeply reporting the region’s challenges in transportation, education, leadership and more that could stunt our progress. We’ll also examine potential solutions.

We did a similar investigation in 2011. The result was our first Atlanta Forward special report, an eight-day series that illuminated many of the region’s obstacles. Four years later, the region is grappling with the same problems. So we decided to take a fresh look.

- Charles Gay, Senior Editor for Economy/Business


This initial series:

Sunday: A big-picture comparison of Atlanta with its perennial economic competitors, Charlotte and Dallas.

Monday: A deep look at Dallas-Fort Worth’s Texas-sized ambitions compared against metro Atlanta’s.

Tuesday: Charlotte’s turn under the microscope. While the market is smaller, its vibrant downtown is enviable.

How we got the story

AJC economy reporters Dan Chapman and Michael E. Kanell, with the help of AJC data specialist Jeff Ernsthausen, analyzed reams of economic and social welfare data on the metro regions of Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte. They then compiled 12 key indicators comparing the regions’ relative prosperity.

The AJC used data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis, as well as the Census Bureau. With data not adjusted for inflation, the AJC calculated to correspond to 2013 dollars for comparison’s sake.

In addition, Chapman traveled to Dallas-Fort Worth and Kanell to Charlotte to report the story behind the numbers.

Atlanta once dreamed big and prospered.

Few envisioned that an abandoned race car track would one day become the world’s busiest airport. The racial turmoil roiling the 1960s South largely side-stepped an Atlanta too busy to hate. And the city shocked the world by snagging the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Metro Atlanta doubled its population every generation and spread to Alabama and nearly to Tennessee.

INTERACTIVE CHARTS: How Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte compare

But today, Atlanta may have lost its New South capital crown to Dallas, whose motto is “Big Things Happen Here.” And Charlotte, the Queen City nipping at Atlanta’s heels, relies on solid planning and leadership to one day, possibly, one-up Atlanta.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tallied a dozen economic and social welfare indicators – jobs, wages, foreclosures, commute times, population growth and more – to determine how the three Sunbelt giants fare against each other five years after the recession.

Atlanta trails in most categories — sometimes by a wide margin.

Among the AJC’s findings:

- Metro Atlanta’s overall economy — its gross domestic product — is down nearly a full percentage point since 2007. Charlotte’s GDP is up 10 percent. Dallas’ has risen 14 percent.

- Atlanta last year employed 4 percent fewer people than before the recession. Dallas employed 8 percent more, Charlotte 6 percent more.

- Average weekly earnings in metro Atlanta remain 6 percent below pre-recession levels. In Charlotte and Dallas they‘ve dropped 3 percent or less.

- Average metro Atlanta home prices remain 15 percent below the pre-recession peak. In Dallas, they're 13 percent above peak.

- Atlanta’s suburban poor population jumped 159 percent between 2000 and 2012 — the second largest increase in the nation.

ExploreCHARTS: View the full analysis

‘Eclipsed by others’?

Metro Atlanta isn’t the next Detroit. The unemployment rate has dropped, commercial development is rebounding and the region remains appealing enough that Mercedes-Benz chose the area for its U.S. headquarters.

The Mercedes decision is “emblematic,” said Hala Moddelmog, CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. She cited a projection of 78,000 new jobs for metro Atlanta this year.

“I believe that we are on the cusp of getting to a very positive trend.”

Still, key economic markers indicate that Atlanta is struggling to regain its pre-eminent position as a Sunbelt leader.

Fewer people move here than before the recession, proportionately speaking, while more choose Dallas or Charlotte. Millenials — the young adults considered a region’s creative lifeblood — have turned their back on metro Atlanta.

“Atlanta is one of the big Sunbelt cities of the last 20, 30 years that has really been eclipsed by others,” said Joel Kotkin, an urban expert at Chapman University in California.

“Real successful cities tend to be ‘necessary cities’ where you go to get things done. If you’re in finance, you can go to Charlotte. If you’re in technology, you go to Raleigh. If you’re in entertainment or health care you go to Nashville. For energy, you go to Houston or Dallas. When you look at places in America where things are happening, Atlanta is not high on that list.”

No ‘small things’ in Dallas

Everything, they say, is bigger in Texas, and a boat ride down the Trinity River from Fort Worth to Dallas lends credence to the boast. Both cities propose multi-billion dollar plans to reconnect their downtowns with the slow-moving river and its miles of green space.

In Dallas, a new bridge evoking a massive stringed instrument soars over the Trinity to alight in a once-blighted community that boosters expect to soon fill with condos, offices, galleries and a “restaurant incubator.” The $2 billion Trinity Groves project, the brainchild of Fuddruckers and Eatzi’s founder Phil Romano, will transform a neighborhood of body shops and taquerias in West Dallas into an 80-acre extension of downtown.

“In Texas, we seem incapable of doing small things,” said Michael Seman, a senior researcher at the University of North Texas. “We are in a great economic period – in-migration, housing values, employment are all going up – across the board.”

Dallas-Fort Worth will lose a little luster with the drop in oil prices, but the region’s economy is much more diverse today and better able to withstand energy-related shocks.

Metro Atlanta counts recent successes too. Alpharetta boasts Avalon, a newly opened $600 million live-work-play development. Roswell plans something similar. The Atlanta Falcons and Braves are building new stadiums. The intown Beltline, a 22-mile ring of parks and bike paths, garners international attention.

Encouraging signs, but none that shout: “ATLANTA IS BACK.”

Why has metro Atlanta fallen behind while Dallas and Charlotte surge? There’s no single answer. Criticism, though, usually returns to the region’s inability to fix its traffic, water and education systems — the infrastructural bones that build a healthy, economically vibrant community.

30-year problems

“I gave a speech to Atlanta Leadership last year and said, ‘We were confronted with water, infrastructure and school problems 30 years ago and nothing happened,’ ” recalled A.D. Frazier, the chief operating officer for the Olympic Games. “When is the last time we built a new road? Or expanded MARTA? We find ourselves in a damn time warp.”

Critics target state leadership, which often appears indifferent to metro Atlanta’s plight.

Gov. Nathan Deal blames Washington dysfunction for withholding money to improve Georgia roads and bridges. The governor, though, says the state helped metro Atlanta with new lanes on I-75 and a planned new interchange at the junction of I-285 and Ga. 400.

A transportation bill in this year’s Legislature is “a positive step,” Deal said, adding, “there’s still a long way to go.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who said recently the failed 2012 referendum on a regional transportation sales tax was his biggest regret, dismisses talk of Atlanta’s eclipse.

“Y’all need a therapist if your theory is that between 2012 and today we haven’t been making significant progress on our problems,” he said. “No metropolitan economy in the Southeast has accomplished what we accomplished, which is why more and more businesses are choosing the metro Atlanta area.”

Reed touts the Beltline, expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson International, the deepening of the port of Savannah - widely expected to help metro Atlanta’s economy - and the recent announcement that NCR is moving to Midtown as proof.

NCR’s move down Interstate 85, though, won’t boost school test scores. More port-bound trucks won’t fix the region’s traffic. And the Beltline won’t uncover new sources of water.

Atlanta ‘losing its mojo’

Ron Bouchard moved to an ascendant Atlanta 25 years ago. But a management career at AT&T ended with a layoff in 2009. Bouchard raided his 401(k) to pay the mortgage while applying for hundreds of jobs.

Wife Kathleen returned to work. Two of Bouchard’s sons fled Conyers for California in search of employment.

In August 2011, Bouchard landed a part-time gig driving a truck and a backhoe for $12.50 an hour. He soon returned to management, only to lose that job three years later when his company was bought by one in Texas.

Bouchard, 68, was hired last month as a construction supervisor.

“If Atlanta doesn’t get its act together we may be considering a move out of here,” he said.

“Atlanta is losing its mojo. When we moved here 25 years ago, a lot of my colleagues were jealous. Atlanta was booming. It was in a great state with nice weather. But if I was offered the same opportunity today, I wouldn’t even consider it.”

Jobs decimated

The recession killed one in 10 jobs across metro Atlanta. Tens of thousands of construction workers lost their jobs. But so too did factory workers, engineers, warehousemen and bankers. The region’s jobless rate peaked at 10.6 percent in January 2010. The rate typically is about twice as high for African-Americans drawn by Atlanta’s reputation as a middle-class mecca for blacks.

It took until October 2014 — five years after the recession ended — for metro Atlanta to regain the number of jobs lost. Even then, Georgia notched the nation’s highest unemployment rate for three months running last year.

Some skills are back in demand . Hospitals hired more than 10,000 nurses and other workers between 2008 and 2013, according to an analysis for the AJC by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet temp agency, payroll service and grocery store jobs, which typically don’t pay well, also were among the fastest-growing.

Perhaps more troubling is the financial hit taken by Atlanta’s middle class. The number of metro Atlanta families with incomes over $40,000 has declined 3 percent between 2008 and 2013, an AJC analysis of federal data shows. In Charlotte, that number is up more than 2 percent. In Dallas, it’s up 10.

“Atlanta’s most telling statistics – and it’s most problematic – are wages and income,” said Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “Having a thriving middle class is almost a definition of a successful city. You want a thriving middle class to bring economic and social balance to a city.”

Poor households grow

The ranks of metro Atlanta’s poor soared during the recession, with the number of households earning less than $10,000 rising one-third between 2008 and 2013. In Charlotte and Dallas, the increase was half as much.

Atlanta is the nation’s most economically unequal big city, according to a Brookings Institution study. The rich here had incomes 18.8 times greater, on average, than the poorest, the think tank reported. Nationwide, the rich were 10.8 times wealthier than the poor.

“No U.S. region matches Atlanta in its extent and rapid increase of suburban poverty,” said Alan Berube, a senior fellow at Brookings.

Nearly 90 percent of metro Atlanta’s poverty is found in Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb and other suburban counties. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of poor in Atlanta’s suburbs jumped 159 percent. One of every six suburbanites is poor, defined as a family of four making $23,500 or less a year. Charlotte’s suburban poor rose 113 percent, Dallas’ 111 percent.

The foreclosure morass, which devastated swaths of suburbs as well as some intown areas, played an out-sized role in metro Atlanta’s poverty growth.

The region’s home prices remain 15 percent below the pre-recession peak, according to Case-Shiller, a leading index, and in some places by a lot more. The appraisal on Bouchard’s Conyers home, for instance, was nearly $500,000 in 2005. Last year it was $227,000. Home values in Dallas-Fort Worth, meanwhile, are up 13 percent over the pre-recession peak.

Midtown jobs boon

Last month Mayor Reed labeled NCR’s move to Midtown with 3,600 workers as “the biggest single jobs announcement inside the city limits in 40 years.” Reed, in an interview with the AJC, boasted that Atlanta was on a relocation roll.

Mercedes announced in January the transfer of its U.S. headquarters and 800 jobs to Sandy Springs from New Jersey. WorldPay US (1,200 jobs) confirmed in December the relocation of its headquarters to Atlantic Station. Athenahealth (200 jobs) last year moved to Midtown’s Ponce City Market. And homebuilder the PulteGroup (200 jobs) left Detroit for Atlanta last year.

Many of the companies considered Dallas and Charlotte too. Yet metro Atlanta, with its well-known amenities – Hartsfield-Jackson, universities, low cost of living — prevailed.

“There is not much debate, nationally or internationally, that the most important economy in the Southeast is the Atlanta metro region,” the mayor said. “I would take the years from 2012 to 2015 as substantial, verifiable, concrete progress for the region.”

But when Electrolux Major Appliances quit Augusta four years ago, it picked Charlotte over Atlanta. CEO Jack Truong, in an interview, lauded the Charlotte region’s governments and chamber of commerce, incentives and “other intangibles.” Atlanta offered many of the same perks. In the end, though, traffic convinced Truong to head north.

‘Home in 20 minutes’

“I live six or seven miles from downtown, Truong said. “I can go from my garage to park at the football stadium in 15 minutes. And, at the end of the game, I can get out and get home in 20 minutes.”

The company moved to Charlotte with 450 employees. It now employs 1,000.

And some of the notable corporate relos just shifted jobs around metro Atlanta. NCR is currently in suburban Duluth. Worldpay is in Sandy Springs, Athenahealth in Alpharetta. All just moved from one area of metro Atlanta to another.

“This is lunacy. Bringing something from Duluth into the city of Atlanta? Are you kidding me?” said Frazier, the Olympic organizer who runs a private equity firm. “It adds a net of zero to the Atlanta region.”

NCR says its intown push is geared toward attracting millenials — the 25-34 year-old tech-savvy, trend-setting workers. Athenahealth, Twitter and other tech-related firms also are opening outposts inside the Perimeter convinced that millenials don’t like the suburbs.

But metro Atlanta, despite the millenial surge in Midtown and Buckhead, doesn’t attract as many as it once did.

From 2000 to 2012, the region netted 7,300 millenials with college degrees, according to the City Observatory think tank, a 2.8 percent gain. Dallas added 51,000, a 20 percent jump. Charlotte’s millennial population rose 30 percent. Only Cleveland and Detroit attracted proportionately fewer than Atlanta.

Joe Cortright, the report’s author, said Atlanta has suffered “a remarkable reversal” with millennials. During the 1990s, for example, in-town Atlanta notched the fifth-fastest growth rate.

“I have friends who went to Atlanta and don’t want to stay because of the traffic,” said Megan Johnston, 26, who lives in Charlotte’s South End, a district of bars and restaurants near Uptown. “I wanted variety and I wanted to live near whatever I needed.”

Travel times matter

Mike Alexander, who runs the Atlanta Regional Commission’s research division, said local officials recently began peppering him for specific travel times between work and home locations.

“This is a new phenomenon,” Alexander said. “But it’s absolutely important to businesses (because) they want to save time and money and get their employees to work as quickly and as easily as possible.”

Metro Atlanta voters rejected a plan in 2012 to raise $7.2 billion for road and rail projects via a sales tax. The ill-planned project list and a poor sales job by business and political backers, guaranteed failure and set back the region’s economy, said Charlie Harper, editor of the Peach Pundit conservative blog.

“We only see the press releases from the companies we won,” he said. “We never get to do an autopsy on the companies that we don’t get and so we don’t know how much money we are leaving on the table.”

Last November, 80 percent of Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment to spend half of the state’s oil and gas tax revenue on transportation. The shift has already raised $1.7 billion with Dallas-Fort Worth receiving roughly $400 million.

“That’s an interchange for us,” said Mike Eastland, executive director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “We are as conservative, if not more so, than Atlanta… We’re just fortunate to have the oil and gas industry generating a lot of money.”

The Dallas region leads the nation in light-rail miles (111) and, possibly, toll road miles (90). Charlotte has nine miles of light rail and plans another nine miles by 2017.

Atlanta’s MARTA runs 48 miles of heavy rail, with 38 stations, across DeKalb and Fulton counties. Although a new station hasn’t opened since 2000, the agency is studying new lines up the Ga. 400 corridor and across northeast Atlanta.

Some see Clayton County voters’ decision last fall to join MARTA, and to pay an extra penny sales tax, as progress. MARTA also began running a 2.7-mile long streetcar through downtown Atlanta in December.

MARTA CEO Keith Parker said "2015 could be a watershed year for MARTA, transit in metro Atlanta and around the state."

Atlanta’s transportation problems are not unique, said Moddelmog, the Metro Chamber chief.

“People who are moving here tell us that they expect any large city that is growing is going to have congestion.” The key is to have a plan, she said, adding she is encouraged by the General Assembly’s consideration this winter of a plan to shovel $1 billion annually at the issue.

Yet metro Atlanta’s needs are much bigger — $60 billion in roads and rail over the next 25 years, according to the ARC.
“Atlanta has done big things, but we’re succeeding despite ourselves,” said Frazier, the ex-Olympics executive. “At the very time we should be pulling together, we’re more and more balkanized in metro Atlanta than ever before. But we’d better learn to work together.”

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