“In lieu of us sitting and waiting on the businesses to come to us, we go to them,” said Jonesboro City Manager Ricky Clark, who acknowledged that south metro cities are challenged by demographic and income statistics that work against them. “You have to use innovative leadership.”
Retail experts said hard work can only go so far. North metro communities have been more nimble in going after economic development and have a longer history of offering incentives than their southern counterparts. That has allowed the communities to make themselves destinations — think Lenox Square or Perimeter Mall — a key lure for retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs who are risk-averse by nature and seek to locate in areas that have already proved successful.
“The days of building the empty shopping center and thinking you’re going to randomly fill that shopping center, those days are gone,” said Jonathan Neville, a partner and retail practice leader for law firm Arnall Golden Gregory. “There has to be more strategy.”
Finding the right fit
South metro economic development officials agree. Brian Wismer, Fayetteville Downtown Director, said south metro does not have the population density that the north side has to attract some of the harder to get top shelf retailers. For instance, it's easier for Shake Shack to locate at Perimeter because it has a pool of more than 1 million to pull from in Gwinnett, DeKalb, North Fulton and Cobb. South metro can't match those numbers, he said.
Others said it would be naive to not to mention the impact of race in the area’s economic development struggles. While everyone agreed that green is the color that retailers care about most, the fact south metro has a high percentage of African American residents can’t be ignored. Numerous studies have shown that banks, grocery stores and dry cleaners — ordinary quality of life businesses — are found in less abundance in black communities, including those with high incomes.
"It is a factor," said Shannon James, a banker and chairman of Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance, a business group focusing on promoting development around Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. "I think we have to be honest with ourselves when we look at poverty, unemployment and under-employment and you think which race is most represented here."
The push to boost economic development in south metro Atlanta comes as the communities are thriving in some key sectors. Clayton and Henry have been successful in creating thousands of jobs by luring distribution centers and becoming a logistics powerhouse while Fayette has put itself on the national map with Pinewood Studios, the home of many Marvel comics movies. BMW is building a training facility in College Park while the Atlanta Hawks are locating its minor league team at a new arena under construction in the same city.
What they lack, however, is a diversity of pay. Almost all of the jobs in the communities — save for those at Pinewood — have lower wages, somewhere around $12 to $15 range, not exactly the incomes that would attract Whole Foods or the Ritz-Carlton, the retail experts said. And some fear that south metro’s success in attracting distribution centers could pigeonhole the area, making it tougher to convince higher-end businesses that there are incomes in the communities that can afford their product.
"At this point it seems like we are becoming like logistics on steroids and it is spiraling out of control," Henry Commissioner Bruce Holmes said at a recent commission meeting.
On the same page
The problem with economic development is that it’s not an exact science, said Kennesaw State University economist Roger Tutterow. South metro recovered more slowly than the north side after the 2008 recession and while it has made progress, it still hasn’t got its footing, he said.
“The nature of all development is the reality of uncertainty,” he said. “If there was perfect certainty that you would be able to find the right development style and the economy would hold up, everybody would do it.”
While south metro Atlanta communities share some of the same economic development frustrations, the counties do differ economically. Fayette, for instance, is one of metro Atlanta’s wealthiest communities with an average annual household income of almost $82,000 while Clayton’s is the area’s least wealthy with an annual income of about $42,470, according to a 2016 snapshot by the U.S. Census. Fulton and Henry fall in between at average annual incomes of $58,800 and $62,500 respectively.
Access to a higher disposable income is why Fayette has a few more amenities than its neighbors, including trendy grocery stores such as Sprouts and Fresh Market. Pinewood Forest, a more than 200-acre mixed-used project under construction across the street from the studio, will include the chef-driven restaurant Braise and a planned boutique hotel.
Clayton, on the other had, has had a mixed record. Food service equipment manufacturer LTI in March broke ground on a 175,000-square-foot expansion in Jonesboro, a win for the small Clayton community. But some leaders think the county — which has made a pitch to become home to Amazon's second headquarters — could be farther along if it had a director for its development authority, a position that has been empty for almost a year.
Despite the area’s challenges, Aerotropolis’ James thinks that all things are possible for the southside if it has a spark. He hopes that will be the recently announced “Airport City” project, a 320 acre mixed-used development near Hartsfield that will consist of offices, hotels, housing and retail and restaurants. While all the details have not been released, the project, if done right, can be a catalyst for bigger and better projects down the road.
“Once you get one off the ground and its successful then it becomes less of a risk and the question becomes, “Are you ready to get in the game now?” he said.