Acknowledging where the region’s job growth really occurs, Atlanta’s most powerful business group is taking an inward turn.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber outlined a new strategy Wednesday that pivots its focus from luring existing companies here toward starting new firms and growing existing ones.
The chamber long warned that the failure of the transportation tax would make it harder to recruit new firms here, and the plan unveiled before more than 1,000 executives and politicians seemed to reflect that concern.
But leaders said the new approach was in the works months before the T-SPLOST defeat in July and had to do more with metro Atlanta’s lagging recovery. Wednesday’s announcement finalized the chamber’s embrace of the new approach.
Carol Tomé, Home Depot’s chief financial officer and a driving force behind the new strategy, said a study by an independent consultant about the sources of the area’s jobs forced executives to own up to this hard truth:
“Job growth can no longer just come from recruiting jobs to Atlanta,” she said.
Even before July’s vote, the chamber, long a voice of sunny optimism about Atlanta’s business climate, warned of a “crisis.” Officials feared the area’s economy would not recover until 2020 or later without a bold plan.
On Wednesday, the group released new data that could reinforce its inward turn. It shows that only 3 percent of the region’s new jobs come from traditional recruitment. Some 42 percent of jobs come from existing firms, and the remaining 55 percent comes from startups and other new ventures.
Case in point: Atlanta-based Home Depot has pledged to create 2,500 new jobs in Georgia this year. And Atlanta’s airport, thanks in part to a sleek new $1.4 billion international terminal, has added another 1,700 jobs since January, said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. The mayor, along with Gov. Nathan Deal, spoke at Wednesday’s meeting.
It doesn’t, however, mean the business community has abandoned efforts to recruit companies to town. State and local governments have long had efforts in place to seek out business beyond the state line.
But the chamber’s leaders say an overemphasis on recruiting outsiders has cost existing companies and budding entrepreneurs attention and resources they need to grow. It’s yet unclear what this new focus will deliver, and chamber officials are still fine-tuning the plan. However, they say it’s become painfully clear the new strategy is needed.
Sam Williams, the chamber’s president, said the region has added only 50,000 jobs over the last decade. During the booming 1990s, Atlanta added that many jobs in a single year.
“We’re going to continue to recruit companies, but we know that that can’t solve the jobs problems,” Williams said. “We want to help the existing companies here grow much faster.”
It’s been a long year for the chamber, which poured time and treasure into supporting a 1 percent sales tax that would have funded $7.2 billion in transportation improvements over the next decade. In June, leaders announced a plan to jump-start the region’s economy with a promise to foster more startups. The next month, the resounding defeat of the tax was seen by some as a stunning rebuke to the high-profile leaders who publicly backed it.
Leading politicians, though, insisted there were no regrets.
“The one thing I hope that the transportation referendum let you know … is that you have leaders who won’t turn and run when it gets thick and when it gets hard,” Reed told the audience.
There was little other talk about the failed venture at the chamber’s meeting, but leaders promised several “bold steps”: target several key industries through incentives and other support; drive more collaboration with the higher-education system; better promote Atlanta’s story; and boost quality of life and infrastructure.
The chamber is focusing first on startups and existing clusters, such as bioscience and health IT. Earlier this year, it created a mobility task force to help grow and attract wireless firms, something it may not have done without the new focus.
In the wake of the T-SPLOST’s failure, the question of what to do next about infrastructure still loomed.
“Congestion remains one of our major concerns,” Deal said at the meeting. “We are going to reach a point where if people cannot move in a timely fashion, some of the growth we’ve been able to recognize will slow down.”
He quickly added: “Fortunately, I don’t think that’s happened yet.”
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