Clayton County has many attributes that should make it attractive to businesses looking for a home — affordable housing, easier commutes than areas in the north suburbs and the world’s busiest airport in its backyard.
But as most of metro Atlanta’s economy burned bright over the past decade, Clayton’s only flickered, county leaders and economists say.
While other nearby communities grabbed headlines for luring Fortune 500 headquarters, such as NCR Corp. in Midtown and Mercedes-Benz in North Fulton, or splashy mixed-use developments, such as the Julio Jones-proposed Ariston in Gwinnett, the county that anchors the southside has struggled to land a game-changing deal of its own.
“Clayton County has been stagnant,” said Morrow Mayor Jeff DeTar. “Development has skipped over our area.”
Still, a new cadre of Clayton leaders armed with fresh ambitions are taking steps to reverse that trend. The question hanging over their vision: Can anything slow Atlanta’s inexorable march northward with all the regional problems that has created?
The leaders are also hoping to finally shed a decade-old perception of the county being poorly managed with a struggling school system.
If they succeed, their plan to attract new development and create a thriving population center south of Atlanta could benefit the entire region. It could help relieve traffic congestion in the heart of metro Atlanta by offering people good jobs near where they live and quality amenities to draw people to the southside, economic experts say.
At the heart of the effort is a push for cross-county cooperation, including MARTA’s expansion into Clayton, and a new economic development executive director hired to think beyond the county’s traditional manufacturing and logistics base.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as we have missed out on whatever,” the director, Khalfani Stephens, said of the county’s economic development past. “I would more characterize it to say that we have now begun the process of taking the reins and really saying, ‘This is the direction that we want to move in.’”
That includes support from Aerotropolis Atlanta, an economic development group hoping to make cities around Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport the metro area’s next boom communities. The organization is conducting national marketing for the county, along with South Fulton and other communities south of I-20, to tout the area as a retail and residential destination.
More recently, Clayton unveiled plans to remake Mountain View, a tiny community at the foot of the airport’s runways, as a district akin to Cobb County’s Battery. The area had been set aside for Amazon’s second headquarters, but was pulled from contention after one of Clayton’s commissioners allegedly blundered the opportunity by going around the state economic development department and pitching to the online retail giant directly.
“We should have cranes all over the place,” said Jeremy Stratton, CEO of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce.
Leaving the past behind
Longtime residents and community boosters remember Clayton’s heyday of economic development in the 1980s and 1990s as communities across the metro suburbs exploded with growth.
But instability in the county’s leadership as its demographics changed in the 2000s and the impact of the recession caused the area to fall behind its metro Atlanta counterparts.
It didn’t help that elected leaders such as Victor Hill, the controversial sheriff, garnered attention-grabbing headlines that damaged the county’s image among some. Hill was back in the news this summer when he jailed a political rival’s wife.
Meanwhile, the county school district, which lost its accreditation in 2008 because of infighting among school board members and county administrators, has struggled to get some to stop using it as a way to discredit the county. Even though the system was re-accredited the next year and has won awards since then, residents argue many outside the county don’t know that side of the story.
Clayton commercial real estate broker Altimese Dees was tired of the negative perceptions of the county and launched a website this summer to fight back. She said the county has many things going for it, including an improving school system, a public water system that’s among the best in the state and several brand name manufacturers that provide good jobs.
Her site, comehome2clayton.com, touts itself as a publication “designed to spread the great news” about the county.
“Over the years, unbalanced media reports have created a negative perception of Clayton, and that’s unfortunate,” she said.
Mark Arend, editor of Georgia-based magazine Site Selection, which writes about the world of business location, said it would be a mistake for Clayton officials to worry about the past. Instead, he said, the county should play up its strengths that are attractive to companies.
“It’s up to the economic development people not to dwell on public school issues from 10 years ago but to say, ‘Clayton State (University) is a huge resource to employers because of the degree programs, because of the training programs or because of the local supply of graduates,’” he said. “I would concentrate on the tangible assets that are there.”
Clayton already has some unique economic drivers. Thousands of “Gone With The Wind” fans visit annually to tour the Road to Tara Museum and its 1867 Historic Jonesboro Train Depot. Spivey Hall at Clayton State is celebrated for its concert series and acoustics.
And the county has won its fair share of business over the last five years. That has included the opening of an 800,000-square-foot distribution center at the Clayton Commerce Center, expansion of the Clorox Plant in Forest Park, and a massive 1,168-acre master planned logistics center under construction at Fort Gillem that could create more than 8 million-square-feet of state-of-the-art e-commerce distribution space, said Stratton, the Clayton Chamber CEO.
That has been a big boost to a county whose unemployment rate, which has dropped significantly in recent years, is still the highest in the metro area at 4.7 percent. The median household income for Clayton was $45,172 in 2017 compared to a median of $65,381 across metro Atlanta, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
One challenge that could hold Clayton back is the skillset of its workforce. Only 19 percent of the county’s population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 29.4 percent of Georgians are college educated, said Iryna Hayduk, an assistant professor of economics at Clayton State.
“The key to the economic success is to further enhance the educational attainments of the county residents, on the one hand, and to create more higher paying jobs, on the other hand,” she said.
If Clayton can lure the high paying jobs, trendy grocery stores and coffee shops many want, fewer south metro residents would have to travel the clogged roads of Atlanta’s northside to get to job centers for work and a new world of housing options could be opened up across the area for those priced out of communities of their choice.
“We want to see higher quality in Clayton County as a whole,” said Jeff Turner, chairman of the Clayton County Commission. “We want good restaurants, housing, hotels. We have to be patient and it may be a slow crawl, but we are working toward that end.”
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