Georgia exploits window of opportunity

Ken Stewart says the view from his 12th floor office in Midtown is one of the best ways to sell Georgia to companies looking to expand.

From his Fifth Street post as commissioner of Georgia’s Economic Development Department, he can tell a prospect to look directly across the interstate at Georgia Tech’s advanced computing lab.

A slight turn of the neck to the south and he can point to Coke’s headquarters, Centennial Olympic Park, the fish tank, new downtown buildings and an Atlanta culinary delight — The Varsity. And on the northwest horizon, there’s the Vinings headquarters of Georgia’s largest company, Home Depot.

The combination of multinational firms, top-notch higher education and a vibrant downtown help Stewart in what’s become a super-competitive race among states to attract new investments.

“The lifeblood of every … state is to market and sell and grow,” he said. But during a recession, that’s not easy.

“The competitive landscape to grow jobs is more intense than ever,” he said. “The Southeast is the most competitive [part] of the country for economic development. It’s the fastest growing, with a competitive cost structure and business environment.”

To try to deploy his resources wisely — a $30 million budget with 169 employees in the U.S. and 10 other countries — Stewart said he’s focusing on specific manufacturing and service sectors. For example, he said, Georgia could add a number of jobs by attracting call centers back to the U.S. from abroad.

“It’s about customer satisfaction,” Stewart said. He’s hearing from domestic companies that they are disappointed in the performance of their offshore centers, despite labor-cost savings.

On the manufacturing front, transportation costs, especially for heavy equipment, are expected to rise over time as oil prices escalate. So the cost advantage of producing some goods overseas is likely to narrow or disappear.

He cited Portuguese manufacturer EFACEC Group, which decided to invest $100 million to build a plant making large industrial transformers in Effingham County, near Savannah. It’s the company’s first U.S. plant.

And, what is sometimes forgotten in NCR’s recent move of its headquarters to Duluth from Dayton, is that it will produce ATMs in Columbus.

Will there be more major relocations like NCR’s?

“There are more home runs on the horizon, but our success depends on singles and doubles,” Stewart said.

Those singles and doubles are likely to include logistics, biotech and information technology firms, he said.

To attract companies, Stewart is not just pointing out some of our bright spots from his office. He’s currently on a two-week trip to China.

While marketing Georgia, Stewart maintains that our long-term problems — transportation congestion, primary and secondary education, and water — are not hurting us with corporate decision-makers.

That’s surprising to me, given how long these issues have been fumbled.

“I’m asked very little about those issues,” Stewart said. The executives he talks to are “concerned about the quality of labor, costs, materials and logistics.”

Stewart said executives considering Georgia assume our political leaders will deal with our long-term problems over time.

Wishful thinking, in my book.

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5 comments Add your comment


August 25th, 2009
9:30 am

Interesting and insightful piece Mr. Unger. At long last Georgia’s political leaders appear to finally ‘get’ the importance of bringing the interstate business community to the ‘head of the table’ in addressing at least one of our interstate water challenges. This problem was never going to get ‘fixed’ if we continued to limit the ’seats at the negotiating table’ to politicians, lawyers, and engineers as we have over the past 20 years; NEVER. Real progress on the water issue may now finally be on the horizon.


August 25th, 2009
9:37 am

Wishful thinknig indeed. Businessmen often don’t think about the impact of political issues until it comes and bites em in the butt or until it actually makes business more costly to conduct.


August 26th, 2009
7:03 am

What you guys always forget is that every thriving metro area deals with the same issues in terms of growth. If a company wants to go to a city where is free flowing every minute of the day, Detroit is the place for you. But thats not what they want, Stewart is absolutely correct — labor, access to markets and controlled costs. I always find it hilarious when someone complains about traffic — is it really the government’s job to guarantee you a 30 minute trip from Stone Mountain to Kennesaw? No, if you want to have an easy drive to your job in Kennesaw, MOVE TO KENNESAW.


February 9th, 2010
8:19 pm

People who have not grown up in the South are absolutely astonished by the amount of crime. Not just petty, everyday crime, but violent crime. Not to mention the quality of life that is totally lacking unless you enjoy getting drunk, going to football games, etc. Atlanta is goofyville.


March 31st, 2010
8:41 am

You can always go back to Chicago where crime is low (ha). The quality of life in Atlanta would improve when you leave.