Sunday, August 23, 2009

Development must focus on '2nd Georgia'

Athens Banner-Herald | Story updated at 6:23 pm on 8/22/2009

If there's one thing this state's leadership needs to take away from a recent federal court ruling on Lake Lanier, it is that metropolitan Atlanta no longer can sustain any appreciable additional economic development.

In the ruling, occasioned by the continued wrangling of the states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida over the Chattahoochee River - impounded by Lake Lanier, which supplies much of metropolitan Atlanta with water - a federal judge has given the three states three years to come up with a plan for the river. Absent the development of such a plan, metropolitan Atlanta will be scaled back to 1970s-level withdrawals from Lanier.

That would be, effectively, a "death sentence" for the metro area. And even if some agreement can be reached with Alabama and Florida officials - with whom, it should be noted, officials in Georgia's downstate also have interests in common regarding use of the Chattahoochee - that agreement is likely to shackle metropolitan Atlanta severely in terms of the immediate availability of water. That will effectively stall the metro area's growth, and more importantly, take it off the table as a viable location for business and industrial expansion and relocation.

The options that likely will be left to metropolitan Atlanta in terms of boosting its water supply will be nothing if not extremely problematic.

For example, absent some significant streamlining of federal and state permitting processes, building new reservoirs in or around the metro area will take years. Frankly, that's time the metro area can't afford in the often fast-paced world of economic development.

A second option, piping water into Atlanta from other areas of the state, will be a political minefield. For years, the perception of state legislators and other officials outside the metropolitan Atlanta area has been that their infrastructure needs have been ignored in favor of building Atlanta into an economic development hub. That dynamic has helped create what are effectively "two Georgias" - Atlanta and everywhere else.

It's a dynamic felt as close to the metro area as Athens-Clarke County, which got comparatively little state help in an ultimately failed bid to attract a federal animal-disease research laboratory last year.

Candidly, it made sense for years for the state to concentrate infrastructure development and economic development initiatives in the metropolitan Atlanta area, given its obvious dominance over the rest of the state in terms of being a transportation hub with other amenities such as conveniently located suburbs, some cultural life and a number of institutions of higher education.

In recent years, though, the metro area has become a victim of its own success, as gridlocked roadways, crowded suburbs and, now, a potentially limited water supply, serve vividly to illustrate.

It is all but a foregone conclusion that if this state is to get its share of 21st-century jobs, economic development professionals - and, by extension, state legislators - are going to have to steer any new development outside the metropolitan Atlanta area.

Interestingly enough, for much of the state outside the metro area, water is not necessarily a problem. However, much of that area is lacking in other infrastructure - four-lane roads, airports and adequately funded schools, for example - that is just as necessary for top-quality economic development.

At this point, state officials should recognize that they have a couple of choices, one of which is really no choice at all. They can fight what will, in all probability, ultimately be a losing battle to keep metropolitan Atlanta viable as a center for economic development, or they can provide areas elsewhere in the state with what they need to become viable centers for such development.

In other words, state officials can go on a quest to find water that might keep the metro area a viable development locale for a little while longer, or they can spend money and effort on other infrastructure and turn all of Georgia into an attractive location for business and industrial expansion and relocation.

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, August 23, 2009

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