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South metro leaders talk growth and development

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Local economic experts and industry leaders identified the Southern Crescent as having the potential to become the next great growth area of the metro region, during the 2010 South Metro Development Outlook Conference.

On Tuesday at Clayton State University, hundreds of business leaders and elected officials gathered to share ideas and discuss ways to collectively address issues of transportation, economic development, and water conservation in the south-metro region.

Leaders representing Clayton, Henry, Fayette, Spalding, Coweta, Douglas and south Fulton counties attended the conference. During opening remarks, Clayton County Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Wole Ralph described Clayton County and the south-metro area as having "rich promise."

"Today, we meet on the region's front porch," Ralph said. "Despite the economic downturn, this county has generated $180 billion in sales in 2009. this is a county of 8,000 businesses that employ over 100,000 people. In this county and throughout this region, there is new ground to be broken and new action to be taken."

Mercer University Economics Professor Roger Tutterow said that, while he believes it will be 2013 before the state reaches pre-recession employment levels, the Southern Crescent may soon experience increased economic activity. He said recovery from the recent national recession has been taking place across the state since July of last year.

"When we write the story of the recession of '08 and '09, we will likely decide that the recession actually ended in July of 2009," he said. "Industrial production is up, starting about July of last year, manufacturing and trade sales went positive in the fall months, personal incomes are starting to show some gains. I believe by the third quarter of 2010, and possibly in the second quarter, we will see the month-over-month employment levels be positive once again."

Eugene James, director of Metrostudy for the Atlanta market, provides housing-market information, research, and consulting to clients throughout the metro-Atlanta area. He said real estate closings in the south-metro area dropped 23 percent, and housing starts dropped 33 percent between the fourth quarter of 2005 and the fourth quarter of 2009.

However, James said the south-metro region has recently experienced an increase in starts and closings. "It's good news, because it isn't going down anymore," he said. "We're expecting to see a slow, gradual increase in both starts and closings, for not only this region, but all over metro Atlanta in 2010. I don't think we'll see any huge increases in production, but it will be good news if we saw our starts increase a little bit each quarter."

Jeff DuFresne, executive director of the Urban Land Institute's Atlanta District Council, said a "lack of affordable housing" and an over-dependence on "one-anchor tenant" properties has contributed to slowed growth in recent years on Atlanta's north side. He said the south-metro region stands to benefit from proximity to the airport and a perceived increase in population.

"Will the growth in Atlanta continue north ... not probably," DuFresne said. "Growth patterns will change in the coming years. [We have to] think big, look at the lessons learned from the north, [and] capitalize on our assets. MARTA [the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority] is very much an asset. We are so fortunate to have Hartsfield [Jackson Atlanta International Airport] and the growth that is predicted in the region ... 3 million in the next 30 years. We have to plan for the next wave of development."

DuFresne said that in order to deal with the influx of people, the region will "have to consider mass transit." Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Board Member Dana Lemon, however, said addressing transportation issues in the south-metro region will require a regional funding solution. "We have no money in the state of Georgia for transportation, so when you read the articles that talk about funds running low and funds running out, it is actually a reality," Lemon said. "He [Gov. Sonny Perdue] is, in fact, going to ask the General Assembly to put on the table, a referendum, so the citizens of this state can vote on whether or not they would like to pay an initial sales tax to fund transportation projects. The reason why that is so important is that we know that when people are committed to projects and programs, we [will] get more support for the decisions that the department is going to be making over the next several years."

Lemon announced that in addition to a proposed referendum, the governor is also proposing that $300 million in bond funds be set aside for transportation projects in the state. She said that if approved by the General Assembly, the bonds will help finance additional, managed lanes on Interstate 75 between Ga. Highway 138 in Clayton County, and Ga. Highway 155 in Henry County, as well as intersection improvements around Conley Road and Interstate 285.

Lemon added that the proposed bonds, if approved, will be paid from the state's general budget, rather than GDOT's motor-fuel-tax earnings, allowing GDOT to "take full advantage" of the motor-fuel tax to "match federal dollars that we receive for transportation projects."

Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott said the conference encouraged representatives from throughout the south-metro region to think outside of their boundaries. "To have all those people in one room, that might not normally be in the same room, is extremely valuable," he said.

"We have challenges, but there are real projects happening everyday. It's great when people look outside of their little boundary and say, 'What can we do regionally?' On the Southside," he said, "we have so many different economies and realities. This brings together all of us, so we can work on some of these bigger-picture issues. Their issues will be our issues at some point."