Editor’s note: Charles Davidson covers the Atlanta tech scene for Local Tech Wire. An economic recovery might be in the works, but in Atlanta, a place as famous for growth as it is for sugar water, the dirge of gloomy tidings continues.
There has not been a tech company in Atlanta go public in almost two years, after 10 did so in 2000. In just the past several days, we’ve learned that Forbes magazine reckons Atlanta is the nation’s 63rd best place to do business. It was 17th last year.
And on top of the city of Atlanta’s $80 million budget shortfall, the state government’s tax collections fell in April for the 10th straight month, putting Georgia on course for its first year-over-year decrease in tax revenues in nearly half a century. With two months left in the state’s fiscal year, revenues are off by $660 million compared to the same point last year. The last time tax revenues fell from one year to the next was in the mid 1950s.
It’s easy to see why people are buying less and companies are selling less and thus paying less in taxes. In roughly the past year, metro Atlanta has lost about 80,000 jobs. Jobs have been evaporating everywhere, of course, but this is particularly dramatic here: in the eight years from 1992 through 1999, Atlanta led the nation in job growth in six of those years.
From 1989 to 1999, Georgia added nearly a million jobs. Three of four were in metro Atlanta. That’s about 75,000 jobs a year, or roughly the equivalent of adding BellSouth’s entire workforce every year for 10 years. (As it happens, BellSouth announced May 17 that it’ll lay off 4,000 to 5,000 people, on top of 3,000 job cuts last fall.)
The envy of what?
Those sorts of numbers during the 1990s, along with having the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the baseball All Star Game, moved Atlanta leaders like Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams to routinely say things like, “Atlanta is the envy of nearly every mayor, governor and chamber of commerce in the country.”
We don’t hear that so much any more.
Because of headlong growth through the ’80s and ’90s, Atlanta is becoming known not for the Olympics or Martin Luther King Jr. or the Braves, but for traffic, corruption and sucking up resources.
The influential British magazine, The Economist, did a couple of pieces about Atlanta in March. One was about traffic, the other focused on the murder of the reform-minded sheriff-elect of DeKalb County, which is one of the central counties of the metro area. The last few New York Times stories about Atlanta have concerned traffic, pollution, the H. Rap Brown murder trial and the death of rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes.
We’re getting thirsty
It’s not just the media. I recently met a couple from New Zealand on a train trip from Atlanta to New Orleans. They were touring various American cities. Their first comment about Atlanta: horrendous traffic.
They didn’t mention the water. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported this week that metro Atlanta is using water at a rate not expected until about 2030. It’s not yet clear exactly how serious this is, but it’s a real possibility that Atlanta could face dire choices concerning water use and population growth.
Despite the continuing grim news, economists see better times ahead. Rajeev Dhawan, head of Georgia State University’s Economic Forecasting Center, figures Georgia’s economy will start recovering by early summer provided there are no more terrorist attacks and business confidence improves. He says metro Atlanta will add 14,000 jobs in 2002.
“This recovery is very delicate and will need a lot of nurturing from the business community,” Dhawan says.
If he’s right, it’ll be a happy change. Still, it’s a far cry from being the envy of every other city in the country.