The true ‘other’ Georgia

This year, metro Atlanta added the equivalent of a Macon. Next year, it’ll be a Savannah.

That’s the upshot of a recent report, released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which looks at the economic output of America’s metropolitan statistical areas. There’s a reason to care about this — but first, let’s have some fun with numbers.

In 2013, metro Atlanta was projected to grow by $10.9 billion, to $304.9 billion. The growth alone surpassed the economy of Macon ($8.2 billion). Our total output was more than all but 35 nations.

Next year, the report’s authors expect metro Atlanta’s growth to hit $16 billion, which is more than the total output of Savannah ($14.8 billion).

You could compare the economy of the entire state to that of Austria. Or to everything between Egypt and South Africa: a vast expanse that is larger than the U.S., India and Greenland combined, and is home to nearly half a billion people.

That’s what we did here in little ol’ Georgia.

Now, you may have heard there are two Georgias: metro Atlanta, and everywhere else. But if we look at these output numbers on a per capita basis, the picture is a little different.

The economic output per person in metro Atlanta is comparable to that of Sweden, one of the richest nations in the world. But places like Savannah and Dalton each are comparable to Great Britain; Augusta and Gainesville to New Zealand; Hinesville to the U.S. average. Not too shabby.

For all of Georgia’s metro areas, the per capita output is like that of Austria. For all those besides Atlanta, it’s Italy.

But for the parts of Georgia that aren’t part of any metro area, it’s Equatorial Guinea.

If you’re geographically challenged, Equatorial Guinea is a tiny nation on Africa’s west coast, nestled between Cameroon and Gabon.

The comparison isn’t quite as bad as it might sound: For one thing, Equatorial Guinea has a higher GDP per capita than any other African nation. It’s also higher than such European nations as Greece and Portugal. In fact, Italy’s per capita output is closer to that of Equatorial Guinea than it is to that of Sweden.

Still, it says something that, in terms of per capita output and even economic growth rates, places like Dalton and Hinesville are more like Atlanta, and much of Western Europe, than the truly rural parts of our state.

It just may be that the “two Georgias” divide is not so much between Atlanta and everywhere else, but between rural Georgia and the rest of the state.

This isn’t news to a lot of legislators from rural Georgia. Many bills best-suited for metro Atlanta (charter school bills, for instance) can also be practical in other urban centers. It may take more imagination (say, virtual education) to apply them to rural Georgia.

And as metro Atlantans debated how many rail projects to include on their T-SPLOST list, simply paving roads was a priority elsewhere.

Only about 1 in 5 Georgians live in non-metro areas, but they reside in more than half (87) of the state’s counties. That means roughly half of Georgia’s sheriffs, schools superintendents and other local officials may see things quite differently from a legislative majority pushing for various reforms. Not to mention that a disproportionate share of the GOP’s legislative majority hails from the non-metro areas.

All of which means the “other” Georgia will continue to have more sway over our debates than many urban dwellers can fathom.