By Joel Hall
Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell Bell has called for regionalism, self-promotion, and cohesion among local leaders, and laid out future development and economic plans for the county in a State of the County Address.
Comparing Clayton to other counties during a 30-minute speech Thursday, Bell said the county's 2008 median, effective, buying income is $36,822, compared to $46,139 for Fulton County, $49,938 for Henry County, and $64,187 for Fayette County.
He told hundreds of county officials and local business leaders in attendance at Clayton State University's Center for Continuing Education, that Clayton's buying power can increase through cooperation among the county's cities, and with surrounding counties.
"At one time, the Henry County board hardly spoke to us," Bell said. "Now, we eat together twice a month. We must think outside of ourselves. We cannot sell ourselves just on location. We must sell ourselves on accessibility."
While noting a 2.5 percent ($6.3 million) decrease in the county's tax digest, from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2010, and increasing costs to the county in the way of legal fees, indigent defense fees, medical service fees, and public transit operations, Bell said the county made several recent gains in terms of grant funding and economic development.
Since February, new businesses, such as QT Kitchens, Gulf Coast Pre-Stress, and U.S. Express Enterprises, have brought $145.2 million in new investments and 627 new jobs, Bell said. In the last year, the county has also acquired $28 million in federal grants, plus $19.6 million in recovery zone facility bonds, and $13 million in recovery zone development bonds for economic development projects, he added.
Bell noted that several challenges to the county's image remain, including: The ongoing impact of lawsuits brought against former Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill; tension between cities and the county over annexation; a lack of cooperation on regional projects such as commuter rail; and media perception. Bell urged county leaders to look toward themselves, rather than the media, to solve the county's problems.
"People always talk about the fact that there isn't enough good news," Bell said. "We are what we present ourselves to be. If we present it to the media poorly, then they will present it poorly. The Clayton County schools are on the move, and we are producing champions. We, grownups, just have to act a little better. No more excuses."
Bell said, eventually, he would like to boost the county's amount of federal grant funds from $28 million to $100 million. He said he is working on efficiency plans, which he believes will allow the county to "give one mill back" from its recent 3-mill property tax increase within three years.
He said he believes a major part of the county's economic growth will be tied to the development of an "aerotropolis," an urban planning district comprised of aviation-intensive businesses surrounding a major airport.
Bell sighted studies of airport cities surrounding Hong Kong International Airport, Singapore Changi International Airport and Incheon International Airport (South Korea), and said he believes those economic successes could be experienced at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"We're looking diligently at bringing our county, and the airport, closer together," he said.
Shelley A. Lamar, community and land-use planning manager for the airport, said she believes now is the time to develop the aerotropolis concept, and she said surrounding counties will need to work together to make it a reality.
"Chairman Bell came to us a couple of years ago about bringing this idea to the area," Lamar said. "Now is the time to do this. We're no longer competing with Fulton or DeKalb. We are competing with China. We strongly support the idea of regionalism and development."