After decades of being in the economic development shadow of Atlanta and the northside, leaders of communities south of downtown declared Thursday the time has come for them to lead the metro area’s next wave of growth.

Gov. Brian Kemp told them he was listening.

“We have this part of the state on our mind,” Kemp told a packed audience at the 18th annual South Metro Development Outlook conference held at the Georgia International Convention Center. “I think we have a lot of opportunity on the southside and I’m going to be a governor that’s going to continue to collaborate and help facilitate that in every way that we can.”

Kemp, the first governor ever to attend the conference, said he came because he was optimistic about the area’s economic outlook and the ability of leaders to work with his office and that of the department of economic development.

Southside leaders, who have been arguing for years that an abundance of land, less traffic congestion and affordable housing should make their communities a development and job magnet, said they are beginning to attract the big projects they desire. Amazon recently announced a 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center for Coweta County that will employ 500 while College Park leaders are prepping for the construction of a 375-acre mixed-use development dubbed Airport City.

New lodging, such as the recently opened AC Hotel near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, are beefing up options for travelers looking for an overnight stay while a number of cities, including Stockbridge in Henry County, are building new entertainment venues or expanding walking paths and trails to make the communities more attractive for residential living.

Other signs of progress: Gateway Center Arena, home to the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and College Park Skyhawks — an NBA G-League affiliate of the Atlanta Hawks — opened in November. The facility also will host music, sports and entertainment booked through a partnership with The Fox Theatre, a spokeswoman said.

“My friends from Henry County and Fayette County as well as South Fulton County are here to tell you, don’t sleep on us, because if you sleep on the southside, you’re going to miss out on something great,” Clayton County Chairman Jeff Turner said.

Building up the southside is important to the leaders because the area has long been overlooked by white collar employers and retail businesses that have helped the city and the northside thrive. Many of the grocery chains, coffee shops and trendy boutiques that north metro residents think are ubiquitous are often missing on the southside. Clayton County, for example, doesn’t have a Target, Kohl’s or Old Navy.

But southside leaders said there is still much work to do. While they rejoiced Thursday about the economic development progress that has been made, they also warned that in some cases they may have overly relied on businesses such as warehousing and fulfillment centers. They also talked about traffic and having the transportation networks to handle an economic development boost, including getting transportation to economically struggling communities.

Union City Mayor Vince Williams also suggested that leaders have not always been united, though he offered no details.

“I’m going to share some truth with you today church,” said Williams, who also is a minister. “We’ve got to start working together better than we have been. Collaboration is key. Back-biting is not invited to the table.”

Despite those concerns, most of Thursday’s message reflected a belief that the southside is poised to become an economic dynamo in the future. Hartsfield general manager John Selden ticked off a long list of accomplishments at the world’s busiest airport, including parking improvements, plans for additional gates and the ability to use the Peach Pass to park at the airport’s newest parking deck, which will be completed later this year.

MARTC CEO Jeff Parker also laid out plans by the transit organization to boost the number of shelters throughout the southside and build a maintenance and multipurpose facility in Clayton that could bring 350 jobs, as well as rehabilitation of the train station at the airport.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said it won’t be long before others see the shift he is seeing in interest in the southside.

“The northern part of our county is well developed and rightfully so,” Pitts said. “But the future of Fulton County is south Fulton County, no doubt about it.

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