In-town job growth

By Rick Badie

News of employment activity in downtown Atlanta was topped off recently when we learned Coca-Cola expects to relocate at least 500 workers to the city core from the ‘burbs in Cobb County. Is Atlanta experiencing a sustainable in-town jobs migration? Today’s guest columnists weigh that possibility as well as its regional significance.

Back-to-the-city crowd wins

By Greg LeRoy

I have seen America’s future prosperity. It is downtown, and it gets to work by public transit.

That’s why companies like Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Athenahealth, ExactTarget and Asurion Insurance Services are moving jobs into Atlanta. Like smart companies in most U.S. cities, they are voting with their feet for a winning urban future.

There’s no stampede yet back to the city. The long-term thinning of jobs continues. However, a recent Brookings Institution study found that “job sprawl” slowed during the Great Recession, if only because job loss was greatest in outlying areas. That was more true in the metro Atlanta area than nationally.

I’m betting on the back-to-the-city crowd. Why? Because employers on the transit grid have fuller access to regional labor markets. Because tech-savvy Millennials are giving up car ownership in record numbers. Because locating on transit says a company favors energy-efficiency, workforce diversity and quality of life — winning corporate traits.

I’m also convinced that urban density and transit-oriented development create far more jobs than sprawl. Recovery Act data revealed that building transit creates far more jobs per each billion dollars spent than highway construction. Federal highway data reveals that “fix it first”— spending to maintain and improve existing roads, including “complete streets” for pedestrians and cyclists — produces more work-hours than new roads.

It’s not just the jobs building infrastructure. Transit spending stimulates private investment in half-mile radii around stations, creating jobs and wealth as higher land values drive greater density, rehabilitation and mixed uses. When buildings are taller and more complex, they are more labor-intensive to build.

Finally, there’s the tragic history of job sprawl. Visionary William H. Whyte chronicled the flight of corporate headquarters from New York City in “City: Rediscovering the Center,” which was famous for showing that companies followed executives’ home addresses (and golf courses). He tracked 38 such moves. “Companies don’t have to … compare area A with area B and area C. All they have to do is look in the phone directory. Where does the boss live? That is where the company is going.” Thirty-one of the 38 companies moved close to the CEO’s home.

Whyte wrote about how isolating such places could be, and how executives no longer got much face time with colleagues. In other words, he suggested the companies were losing touch and losing their edges. Indeed, 10 years later, he checked back, comparing the companies that moved with 36 similar firms that stayed downtown. Seventeen of the 38 footloose firms had been taken over. Companies that stayed in New York had twice the growth rates and had increases in their stock valuations of more than 2 1/2 times those that had fled.

As a former Chicagoan, I watched storied urban retailer Sears suffer catastrophic setbacks since 1989, when it fled the transit-rich Loop to a distant suburb that then lacked even bus connections.

The future of prosperity is in dense, transit-oriented cities and suburbs. It’s where the creative class thrives, where start-ups get started, and where mature companies keep their edge.

Greg LeRoy is executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.-based policy resource center.

Job sprawl creates challenges

By Elizabeth Kneebone

The economically turbulent 2000s, a decade marked by two recessions and sluggish growth, left almost no major metropolitan area unscathed including metro Atlanta. After job gains earlier in the decade, the post-recession period between 2007 and 2010 saw this area shed more than 200,000 jobs. The unemployment rate more than doubled.

Today, though recovery has yet to bring back all the lost jobs, regional employment is once again growing. But it’s not just the growth or decline of employment that affects the long-term economic health of an area. Where jobs locate matters. The geography of employment intersects with a range of issues — transportation, land use, workforce development and regional innovation — that help determine the extent metro areas are developing in productive, sustainable and inclusive ways.

Like almost every other major metro area, Atlanta-area jobs shifted from the urban core during the 2000s. Employment grew outward, adding jobs more than 10 miles away from downtown while shedding employment in close-in places. Widespread job losses following the Great Recession stalled the outward shift of employment, partly because of the heavy toll the downturn took on more suburbanized industries like construction, manufacturing and retailing, which drove steeper job losses beyond10 miles from downtown.

Still, during the 2000s, the share of greater Atlanta’s jobs in the urban core and between 3 and 10 miles of downtown declined by 0.4 and 3.8 percentage points, respectively, while the share of jobs more than 10 miles from downtown grew by 4.2 percentage points, double the average rate of increase for the nation’s largest metro areas.

By decade’s end, 64 percent of metro Atlanta’s jobs were more than 10 miles from downtown, a figure well above major metro average of 43 percent and surpassed only by metropolitan Chicago’s 67 percent and Detroit’s 77 percent. At the same time, Atlanta located fewer than 1 in 10 jobs in the urban core, compared to a metro average of 23 percent. Only Detroit posted a smaller share (7 percent) of jobs within three miles of downtown.

The shift of jobs outward and away from the urban core can create a host of regional challenges. It can mean a strain on infrastructure, more cars on the road, longer commutes and higher transportation costs. And it can make it harder for low-income residents to reach employment opportunities elsewhere. Research at the Brookings Institute has found that, though 88 percent of the region’s poor lives in suburbs, less than a third of suburban residents have access to transit; those who do can reach only 17 percent of the region’s jobs in a 90-minute commute.

A region can grow outward in smart ways — encouraging dense and mixed-use development in both the urban core and in suburbs, and linking up planning around jobs, housing, transportation and land use. Without policy action to encourage a different course, renewed job growth will likely bring a return to “job sprawl” as usual.

Elizabeth Kneebone is a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

10 comments Add your comment


May 10th, 2013
1:50 pm

The trend towards centralization has already begun and will continue to grow. The key isn’t to look at whether the jobs in intown Atlanta are decreasing or increasing, but to see if they are increasing or decreasing at increasing or decreasing rates.

The combination of changing millennial preferences combined with the constriction of buildout in Northern Atlanta has already led to a reversal of past trends. The suburbs grow with the availability of cheap land away from the commercial core (downtown, midtown). Northern Atlanta has nearly depleted the most important resource of cheap land. There are two options for the markets to take, based off of governmental action: investments in highways and freeways in the north which will continue to lead to sprawl development and increasing growth, investments in public transportation which will lead to growth in the city, or no investment which will lead to growth in the cities (based off of changing preferences).

I prefer city living, but I realize not everyone prefers that. The proper balance if efficient, sustainable development. The suburbs can be a part of that equation, but only if they plan for denser development.

Every neighborhood Atlanta, other than downtown, began as a suburb. Safe, affordable, convenient, diverse neighborhoods built of single family housing are possible components of the density formula.


May 9th, 2013
4:52 pm

All of the comments regarding this subject goes back to one thing. LEADERSHIP!

Atlanta does not have not had the right kind of Leadership to address the real concerns and needs of its Citizens.


May 9th, 2013
3:54 pm

It is understandable that some organizations that already have a presence downtown would consolidate all their employees into one location. However, it is difficult based on the cost and convenience of locating in the suburbs to believe that there will be any real trend to move downtown.


May 9th, 2013
10:35 am

The number one reason that people move to the suburbs is to vote with their feet for the best schools for their kids.
The number two reason is crime and the perception of crime, including homeless, pan-handlers, experience of burglaries, muggings, car break-ins, and drug dealers and prostitutes wandering the streets…along with child molestation and rapes.
The number three reason is COST. In the suburbs I can have better schools, nicer people, lower home taxes, more choices, less local traffic, a back yard for children or pets, cheaper housing, better service, and be safer…all at less cost than in the city. The city is more populated by the affluent, elites, poor and criminal.
The last priority is freedom. I just don’t want to put up with the costs, inconveniences, corruption, bad leadership, and hassles of living inside the Atlanta city limits.


May 9th, 2013
8:01 am

I love my job in the ‘burbs, which is roughly 3 miles away from my house in the ‘burbs. If for some reason my company decided to relocate to the city, they would most likely do it without me.

“The future of prosperity is in dense, transit-oriented cities and suburbs.” You really think Atlanta fits that description, now or anytime in the near future?


May 9th, 2013
6:47 am

what the heck is the point of the first section of this blog? Wishing and hoping, sticking your head in the sand and ignoring actual data (you know…reality)? I work downtown, in a large office complex, and the vast majority of the folks would trade that location for something out in the suburbs in a heart beat.

Seriously, why does the AJC give space to such B.S…..oh, that’s right, because it fits their world view. Too funny, if it wasn’t so sad.


May 9th, 2013
6:02 am

I have looked at the data and jobs are not just marching out of downtown to the suburbs. They are marching north. Moreover, they have been marching north for thirty years. In good time and bad, jobs in Atlanta have migrated from the southside to the northside.

Wishin and hopin won’t change that long term, enduring trend.

There is a possibility that some companies will be attracted to the city center again with younger workers liking the urban setting. Anyone who thinks transit is all there is to that needs to think again. Crime, and the overhead of constant vigilance, will discourage companies from being downtown. Being seen by the city government as a goose to be harvested and not a resource to be nurtured will also drive jobs away.

We might be on the verge of new jobs downtown and we might not. Let’s look for some real data and not anecdotes.


May 9th, 2013
5:13 am

I work near the airport for Delta Air Lines. I could possibly take Marta from Midtown and then a company shuttle to work, but it’s terribly inconvenient. Given my schedule, I need to be at the office within 30 minutes max. Forget walking out of the building to go somewhere else to eat; you need to get in your car and drive at least six blocks for that to happen. Walking that far seriously cuts into my lunch hour and is not practical in bad weather. Yes, Delta should think twice about being so far from Marta, but it also needs to be in an area with a plethora of services: doctors, restaurants, day care, laundries, etc. Delta has provided the doctors in-house and has also installed a gym, but if you need to see a specialist, you have to take off work and drive into town. Locating downtown or in Midtown would be a godsend to many of us who prefer urban life. I hope Delta considers such a move in the near future.


May 8th, 2013
10:50 pm

Before any of this can be done successfully there needs to be a Complete OVERHAUL of All of the politicians and career employees in Atlanta City Government.

Without this change the growth in Atlanta will continue to decline. We need BOLD,SMART,FRESH, INNOVATIVE, CARING Leadership.

None of which we have Presently.

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