Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chamber unveils business recruiting strategy

By Dan Chapman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
7:36 a.m. Friday, July 17, 2009

Bruised by the recession and concerned about low per capita income growth, the Metro Atlanta Chamber on Thursday unveiled its business and job recruitment strategy for the next decade.

Not surprisingly, the chamber expects to play off the strengths — the region’s enviable air, rail and interstate network, low cost of living, a renowned medical community — that built Atlanta into an economic juggernaut.

But its New Economy Task Force, chaired by Southern Co. CEO David Ratcliffe, recommends spending time and money on four key sectors — logistics, high tech, bioscience and business services — to find job-growth gems that will afford Atlanta a prosperous 21st century.

“In this economy, everybody needs to reassess whether or not we’re focused on the right things,” Ratcliffe said. “Everybody’s gazing into that crystal ball and wondering what will make us stronger in the future.”

The challenges are immense. Metro Atlanta no longer competes against just Charlotte, Nashville or Dallas for business. A global, wired economy makes competitors of San Diego, Toronto and Seoul, South Korea. And chambers elsewhere, including Houston’s, also are updating their post-recession recruitment strategies.

Atlanta faces an array of challenges — a paucity of recruitment dollars and venture capital, bad traffic, less-than-stellar schools and water woes.

Most critically, though, the post-recession economy promises to be a very different, less lucrative hunting ground.

“There will be winners and there will be losers coming out of this economic crisis,” said Sam Williams, the chamber president. “We want to make sure metro Atlanta will be a winner. If we play it smart, we can make some big gains once the storm clears.”

By most measures Atlanta’s economic development the past 10 years is enviable. The chamber takes credit for businesses investing $2.4 billion and adding 37,291 jobs in the 28 county metro area.

Yet Atlanta trailed the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas in per capita income growth between 1998 and 2007, according to consulting firm Bain & Co., which conducted the New Economy study. “We have not created enough new jobs, and the jobs we’ve created are fairly low-paid,” said Alan Colberg of Bain’s Atlanta office, who directed the pro bono report. “You can see some of the impact right now: Atlanta is more severely affected by the economic downturn than the average U.S. city.”

Before, the chamber took the any-company-is-worthy approach to recruitment. It won’t turn its back on prospective recruits now. But it will focus on logistics, high tech, bioscience and business services niches.

Warehouses are out; recruitment of logistical engineering firms is in. Digitized medical data and wireless telephony companies get high priority. Vaccine and prosthetics makers will be targeted, as will the wide array of engineering, architectural, graphic design and marketing firms.

And, mindful that existing companies generate three-fourths of jobs, the chamber vows to boost hometown businesses in hopes of creating the next Home Depot or Internet Security Systems.

Business leaders said in interviews this week that they need help to remain competitive. Bain consultants tallied $89 million in economic development grants, loans and specialty funds budgeted by Georgia last year. Florida set aside $388 million.

Georgia also lags behind competitors in private venture capital for start-up businesses. Between 2006 and 2008, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Georgia raised $148 million in biotech venture capital. North Carolina raised $564 million.

The chamber plans to seek more recruitment dollars, tax incentives and venture capital opportunities from the state Legislature.

The General Assembly has, for two years running, refused to give the metro region the chance to tax itself to begin solving traffic woes.

“Everybody’s got issues, anywhere you go in the country,” said Bill Linginfelter, a Regions Bank executive and task force co-chairman. “What we hear from prospects over and over again is, ‘Show us you’re dealing with that.’ ”

Atlanta’s business community rolls out economic development plans every two or three years with mixed results. Yamacraw Design Center. Georgia Cancer Coalition. Innovation Crescent. New Century Priorities. What’s different about this plan?

“We don’t need growth for the sake of growth,” said the chamber’s Williams. “What we need are quality jobs. And the business community has long had a record of looking over the horizon and fixing problems. We’ve constantly got to reinvent ourselves.”

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