Charlie Harper: State Adds Megasite to Economic Development Arsenal

Charlie Harper

Thursday, May 27th, 2021

Last week I dedicated this space to a discussion of why the “other Georgia” needs to be aware of the current challenges facing Atlanta, and why we need to be pulling for positive solutions.  As so much of life and politics is symmetrical, a press release issued days later caught my eye that helps support an appropriate bookend to the discussion.

Governor Kemp’s office announced the purchase of almost 2,300 acres in Bryan County as a “mega-site” to be marketed as part of the state’s economic development portfolio.  The transaction is a partnership between the State and the Savannah Harbor-Interstate 16 Joint Development Authority.  The authority represents the counties of Bryan, Bulloch, Chatham, and Effingham.

2,300 acres represents a lot of potential.  Some may see a future auto manufacturer similar to the Kia facility than transformed a similar sized parcel in West Georgia 15 years ago.  

Others may be looking to next generation technologies, such as the batteries that will power electric Ford F-150s.  These will be made from a facility being built off of interstate 85 in Jackson County, representing $5 billion in investment and thousands of skilled factory jobs.

Looking even farther outside the box and into the country’s true high-tech manufacturing needs, a concerted effort of politicians and business leaders alike are attempting to relocate the manufacturing location of semiconductors from China and Taiwan.  2,300 acres in close proximity to two interstates, an international airport, and one of the country’s busiest ports for both import and export traffic provides a lot of potential to back these hopes and dreams.

Of note here is the type of entity involved that isn’t new but is a bit obscure outside of economic development circles: The Joint Development Authority.  JDA’s do something that is almost impossible to do in most versions of local politics, in that they consolidate counties’ power in order to harness opportunities of scale.

Georgia has 159 counties.  The original goal of the county system in Georgia was to have the county seat, and thus the place where Georgians would have to conduct official business from time to time, less than one day’s buggy ride from anyone’s home.  

While that reasoning has long since passed its shelf life, the number of counties remains the same.  Some have grown to contain hundreds of thousands of Georgians, and at least one has over one million.  Yet many counties in rural Georgia have less than 10,000 residents.

Many of these counties are not seeing growth.  Not population growth.  Not economic growth.

In theory, many would be better off to consolidate their governments in order to better leverage their strengths while limiting their overhead.  This would require eliminating one sheriff, one school board, and a handful of commissioners with each consolidation made.  

Residents don’t want to give up their sense of local control.  Elected officials and local power brokers don’t particularly care to cede their positions.  Thus, the reality is consolidation of counties is a political non-starter.

JDA’s manage to side-step this issue.  Counties can team up with their neighbors to help better market their regions.  Economic successes have spillover effects, so it’s easier to sell the benefit of turning competitors into teammates.  

JDA’s remain completely voluntary, though it’s clear the state would like to put the most unified effort forward when recruiting future employers.  Having three to five counties competing for the same company – and extolling the negatives of their competition - could easily end up sending that prospect to another state entirely.  It’s easier to put the best foot forward – and stay on brand – when there are fewer toes to step on.

I noted last week that nationally and internationally, the state’s brand is “Atlanta”.  Yet when the state’s economic development teams go to work, they have 159 counties and 535 municipalities they must represent, each with their own unique brand.  JDA’s are one additional tool they have in the tool box to help ensure that when it is time to compete for jobs, Georgia is the winner.