The area long considered metro Atlanta’s economic underachiever has come out of the downturn with new momentum.
With the world’s busiest airport in its backyard and plenty of available land, the swath of suburban counties south of I-20 in the last two years has reeled in luxury automaker Porsche, international film-making giant Pinewood Studios and a massive Home Depot online fulfillment center.
In addition, call centers, logistics firms, medical businesses, technology firms and manufacturers are migrating to or expanding in Clayton, Fayette, Henry and south Fulton counties, economic development officials say. Georgia Power has seen more requests for commerical and industrial connections on the southside this year after a few years of slow activity, a spokesman said.
“This is the most activity we’ve seen in a better part of a decade,” said Grant Wainscott, director of economic development for Clayton, which he said has landed a half dozen new companies in the last six months. He said several more potential wins could bring hundreds of jobs.
”It’s been a great end of the year and it’s going to be a busy 2014,” Wainscott said.
Such pronouncements haven’t been uttered on that side of the metro region since before the recession, which hit the southside disproportionately hard with higher unemployment, more home foreclosures and more going-out-of-business signs than other parts of metro Atlanta.
Southside growth mirrors what’s happening in the rest of metro Atlanta as businesses look to resume growth.
But winning projects like a luxury carmaker’s North American headquarters and a major movie production campus are a special boost for the southside, which historically has seen most of the marquee business wins go to points north.
Despite pockets of relative affluence — South Fulton’s eco-chic Serenbe development, Fayette’s Peachtree City and some upscale development in Henry, for example — the southside is seen by many metro Atlantans as the gritty, blue-collar counterpart to the northside’s gleaming office towers and tony subdivisions.
Its biggest economic calling card and job creator remains Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and both Porsche and Pinewood based their decisions on proximity to the airport. With the new $1.4 billion international terminal complete, other development also is taking root near Hartsfield-Jackson:
- Earlier this year, a group of commercial property owners formed a community improvement district called the Airport West CID to promote the area and spend money on roads, lighting, security, sidewalk and other enhancements. Talks for a similar CID on the east side of the airport are underway. CIDs are well-established in northside areas such as Perimeter Mall and the Galleria.
- More than 800 acres are being redeveloped at Ft. Gillem, now known as the Gillem Logistics Center. The former military base is southeast of the airport in Forest Park just off I-675.
- A $50 million road realignment project in the Mountainview Opportunity Zone, parts of which sat dormant for years, will open 150 acres for commercial development inside the perimeter between I-75 and I-285.
Developments such as these are a big reason “business expansion and adding workers looks more promising on the southside in the near-term, said Roger Tutterow, economics professor at Mercer University.
“One of the advantages of the southside is its proximity to the airport and the aggressive commitment of the state to embrace logistics and wholesale trade, which is a big portion of business on the southside,” he said.
“I think you’re going to see 2014 will be a turning of the corner as compared to the past five or six years for the metro south area,” said Michael Hightower, managing partner of The Collaborative Firm, an East Point urban planning and development firm that hosts the annual South Metro Development Outlook Conference.
Britain’s filmmaking giant Pinewood Studios is already at work on its Fayette complex, projected to create 3,400 good-paying jobs over the next decade, along with 3,000 spinoff jobs.
While Fayette did not suffer from nearly as much unemployment or foreclosure activity as Clayton and Henry, the studio project is a huge boost, said Matt Forshee, president and chief executive of Fayette County Development Authority.
“Whether it’s a perception or not, people are feeling good about the community and economy,” said Forshee, who spent much of last year wooing the studio.
Since January, the county has issued 305 certificates for businesses opening in unincorporated Fayette, up from 266 for the same period a year ago.
Forshee said the county has logged eight to 10 key expansion projects this year, as businesses eye renewed growth and banks become more willing to lend again.
“In an average year, pre-recession, we were getting one or two expansions a year,” Forshee said.
In Henry, officials say business activity is reminiscent of a decade ago, with a half dozen projects sprouting the past nine months. They include the Home Depot center, which will create about 250 jobs when it is fully operational. It opens in February.
“We’ve always had a strong mix of warehousing and logistics but this is the strongest manufacturing activity I’ve seen in three years since the economy hit the skids,” said Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority.
The county also has become a medical hub since Henry Medical Center’s 2012 merger with the Piedmont hospital chain. That’s been followed by new urgent care centers, a sports medical clinic and plans for a $10 million Alzheimers care facility, set to open next summer in Stockbridge.
No one expects the activity to change the region’s imbalance any time soon. Recent studies show 90 percent of metro Atlanta’s job centers are on the northside, according to Nathaniel Smith, a founder of Partnership of Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that works to create more balanced growth in housing, transit and economic development policies in metro Atlanta.
The airport remains the only major job center south of I-20, and a heavy reliance on transportation related industries makes the job base susceptible to energy price spikes. And while places like Fayette survived the recession relatively well, Clayton remains metro Atlanta’s poorest county.
“We haven’t unlocked the potential of the land and people south of I-20,” Smith said. But he added, “As the north becomes more dense, the only place the development community will be able to go is south.”