Clayton County takes a deep dive into its economic development future

Clayton County residents county Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as one of the south metro Atlanta community's best assets. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
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Clayton County residents county Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as one of the south metro Atlanta community's best assets. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

For Clayton County to become the economic player it wants to be, leaders need to make it easier to open small businesses, diversify the community’s housing stock, develop its workforce and address healthcare shortcomings.

That’s the conclusion reached by Clayton State University researchers who studied the south metro Atlanta community’s economic strengths and weaknesses over the last 10 months.

While the county has enviable assets such as the world’s busiest airport and a large working-age population, it has seen a drop in entrepreneurship over the last 20 years and renters have begun to outnumber homeowners, threatening the tax base, the researchers told the Clayton County Commission recently.

“This was one of inspirations for us to do this study,” Reza Kheirandish, chair of Clayton State’s accounting, economics and finance department, said of falling numbers of businesses employing one to four people.

Clayton is updating its strategic economic development plan for the first time since 2013, hoping to establish momentum as Americans go back to work in person and the shattered economy restarts.

The move comes on the heels of an announcement last month that meal delivery service Freshly will undertake a $52 million expansion of its Ellenwood facility, bringing with it 600 jobs next year. The nation’s biggest airlines, which drastically reduced staff during pandemic, also have said they plan to boost hiring as travel returns, which could benefit Clayton residents.

For Clayton to be ready for an economic expansion, however, the county needs to establish incubators to grow talent, create a staff position to oversee workforce training and host an annual small business expo, the researchers said.

It must also address structural problems in housing, education and healthcare. The county has fewer dentists, mental health providers and doctors per 100,000 people than most of metro Atlanta’s other counties.

“For example, there are only 25 primary care physicians in Clayton per 100,000 county residents,” said Iryna Hayduk, an assistant professor of economics at Clayton State. “If you compare this rate with DeKalb, DeKalb has 107 physicians per 100,000 residents.“

Clayton County also needs more diversity in its housing stock, the researchers said. There is an abundance of homes in the county’s sweet spot of about $100,000 to $200,000, as well as a smaller pool of higher end housing. But there is not a lot of housing available in prices in-between, which has lead to a lot of higher-income professionals working in Clayton County but living elsewhere.

“We have fairly good starter houses,” Clayton County Commissioner Gail Hambrick said. “When they want to move up and their salaries go up we don’t have as many higher priced homes.”

The study also found that residents think the county’s image as crime-ridden has improved but that the perception could be weighing on efforts to draw jobs.

Residents count Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Clayton’s proximity to Atlanta and its school system and Sheriff’s Office as some of the county’s strengths. Among its weaknesses are poor physical appearance, crime and a lack of quality shopping and dining.

Commissioner Felicia Franklin said the study gives leaders a framework from which to tackle issues and to build on strengths.

“What I love most about (the study) was you brought what was the perception versus the reality and you made recommendations,” she said. “If we are not meeting the mark then we have to go back and reevaluate.”