Ten years ago, today, the Great Recession had been officially over for six months, but it really didn’t feel like it.
In fact, it was probably hard to imagine Jan. 1, 2020, would dawn amid the longest economic expansion in U.S. history.
A recession that slashed jobs and zapped real estate values was replaced by a boom that’s drawn hundreds of thousands of new residents to the Atlanta region and dotted the skyline with new towers. But it’s also squeezed the pocketbooks of many average Georgians grappling with soaring housing costs.
In January, 10 years ago, metro Atlanta set a record high unemployment rate. This past November, the region tied its all-time low, though not everyone has fully rebounded.
The economy was arguably metro Atlanta’s top storyline of the 2010s. But there were so many more.
The Braves and Falcons built new arenas, fueled by taxpayer funds. The Thrashers flew the coop to Canada in 2011, but the Atlanta area welcomed the United.
Few things were more humiliating than blowing a 28-3 lead like the Falcons did in Super Bowl LI. But the city’s consolation prize was the United’s MLS Cup, the first major sports championship for Atlanta since the Braves in 1995.
Atlanta played for and lost the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes, but it won the headquarters of Fortune 500s including homebuilder PulteGroup and railroad giant Norfolk Southern. Atlanta’s biggest bank, SunTrust, married rival BB&T and uprooted its HQ to North Carolina under the name Truist.
There was SnowJam and the I-85 bridge collapse.
A dozen Atlanta Public Schools educators indicted in the cheating scandal went on trial, and in 2015, 11 were convicted of racketeering. Appeals are ongoing to this day. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation of APS had uncovered rampant test cheating years earlier, and triggered a state investigation in 2010 that also led to 21 guilty pleas.
And as fractious as politics in Georgia can be — including divisive debates over immigration, religious liberty and abortion rights — the decade was perhaps best known for a bipartisan friendship. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal and then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed created a model for business recruitment and cooperation that set the stage for regional transportation improvements and the deepening of the Savannah port.
But as the 2020s begin, the state’s political landscape is changing. Atlanta elected its second woman mayor in Keisha Lance Bottoms. The city, while booming, is also operating under the cloud of a federal corruption investigation that started during Reed’s tenure.
In the suburbs, Republicans have lost substantial ground to Democrats, with the state’s political hue shifting from strawberry red to something closer to plum.
Chronological sticklers will point out the next decade doesn’t start until Jan. 1, 2021, but few would argue the past 10 years haven’t been momentous. Here are some of the major stories and themes that marked the past 10 years:
The Great Recession (2007 to 2009) destroyed jobs, wrecked home values and led to Georgia losing more local banks to closure than any other state, and its effects reverberated well into this decade.
The economic expansion is now more than 10 years old, said Roger Tutterow, an economist at Kennesaw State University.
“But the first five years were about getting back more toward normal,” he said.
Metro Atlanta has gained more than 650,000 jobs since 2010, up 29%, led by corporate jobs, health care and logistics. Now, Tutterow said, finding skilled labor is one of the top issues for most business leaders he talks to.
New industries have also taken flight. Financial technology, always in the background in Georgia, is a top performer. In one recent year, Hollywood shot more motion pictures in Georgia than it did in California.
Overall, the housing market, which bottomed out in March 2012, has regained its pre-recession values and then some, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Indices.
Tight housing supply, stricter lending standards, consumers with smaller savings accounts for down payments and housing prices have made buying homes more difficult. Preserving and creating new affordable housing is a concern not only in the city of Atlanta but in many suburbs.
Demographics and development
Georgia surpassed 10.6 million people in 2019, about 1 million more than 2010, by U.S. Census estimates, and the 29-county metro Atlanta region sits at about 6 million.
The state’s population is more diverse, better educated and older than it was in 2010. The city of Atlanta also reversed a decades-long trend of stagnant or even declining population, adding about 50,000 people from 2010 to 2019, according the Atlanta Regional Commission.
“The past decade in Atlanta has been defined by the rapidly growing entertainment and technology industries, and the influx of new residents those and other industries bring,” Mayor Bottoms said. “In each of the past two years, Atlanta has added roughly 10,000 residents. Looking ahead, as Atlanta continues to grow and prosper, we must ensure that longtime residents are able to remain in their neighborhoods.”
With the population growth, gentrification and displacement are major concerns.
The suburbs also are booming.
Cobb, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties all grew by more than 10% since 2010, according to ARC estimates. Cherokee and Forsyth grew even more.
“The 2010s were the decade where we saw metro Atlanta slip from majority white to majority non-white,” said Mike Carnathan, a top number-cruncher at the ARC. “The younger cohorts are more diverse than the older cohorts. We’re not having as many babies. The growth is going to be from people of color.”
Through 2050, the ARC forecasts that the 21-county Atlanta region could add another 2.9 million people. The ones the region already has added and the millions to come all have to go somewhere.
In calendar year 2010, the city of Atlanta issued building permits for construction valued at $1.35 billion. The total for 2019 as of Monday was more than $5.7 billion.
By the end of this decade, development was jumping in just about every corner of Atlanta, with the Beltline, Midtown, the city’s westside and Buckhead, leading the way. An albatross like the hulking former Sears warehouse on Ponce de Leon Avenue is now the white hot Ponce City Market.
Developers even unveiled grand plans to revitalize downtown’s Gulch (now Centennial Yards) with the help of the largest incentive package Atlanta had ever approved.
New waves of high-density apartments started to spring up not only in Atlanta but in many suburbs not accustomed to so many multi-family units. Many suburban cities reinvested in their infrastructure and in creating town centers to attract new residents.
“More people are desiring to live in-town, but there are other urban experiences in some other more traditional suburban locations,” Carnathan said.
It’s easy to dwell on the region’s traffic woes when there are so many. There were the aforementioned bridge collapse and SnowJam, as well as the under-performing Atlanta Streetcar. Overturned tractor trailers filled with various animal parts tend to tip over and snarl Atlanta traffic on the regular. Exotic wildlife galloping down our freeways also isn’t all that unusual.
But the Atlanta region made some forward-thinking improvements. The city of Atlanta approved new tax revenues for MARTA and the state created a new regional transit oversight authority.
State leaders also approved an overhaul of the fuel tax, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually into road and bridge improvements.
Still, Gwinnett turned down joining MARTA again, though the county will likely hold another referendum.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport remains the world’s busiest with a $6 billion overhaul underway. And in Savannah, leaders say the long-promised deepening of the river channel will help keep the bustling port the fastest growing harbor on the Eastern Seaboard.
Sports as big business
The Falcons and Braves built new palaces and the Hawks’ home got a taxpayer-funded makeover. The Braves even entered the real estate development business with the Battery, a live-work-play project that helped convince Cobb leaders to help pay to lure the franchise across the Chattahoochee River.
Georgia State University took over the former Turner Field for its football team, and along with a private developer, is transforming the parking lots into a southern extension of its campus and a mixed-use development.
Atlanta played host to NCAA Final Fours, a college football title game, a Super Bowl and opened the new College Football Hall of Fame.
As 2020 dawns, the region is fighting for the right to host matches in the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
In 2010, Deal was elected as the state’s second consecutive Republican governor, and the GOP was in firm control of both the state House and Senate. While Republicans still control both chambers, all statewide offices, the two U.S. Senate seats and most congressional posts, there are signs Democrats are gaining ground.
Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in Georgia in the 2016 presidential race, but Clinton won in traditional GOP strongholds like Cobb and Gwinnett. In 2018, Democrats flipped one suburban Atlanta congressional seat and nearly won a second, and several suburban House and Senate districts also went to Democrats.
Republican Brian Kemp narrowly edged Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 gubernatorial race. Georgia is likely to be a battleground state in the years ahead. Democrats sure think so, choosing Atlanta in November for a presidential primary debate.
Staff writer Michael E. Kanell contributed to this story.
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