This week’s Courier Herald column:
Amazon’s recent search for a new major headquarters location
was typical Amazon, in that it was anything but typical. It was public and quite publicized. We know who bid, and in many cases, how
much. As with most things Amazon does,
it was able to collect a huge amount of data from prospective host cities and
states. We know who won, and – even more
unusual – we know who lost.
Most economic development project searches are kept secret
until they are over. We know who won when
there is an announcement of a relocation or expansion. We rarely know who else was in consideration.
All of this makes an announcement by Toyota Motor North America last month a bit unusual. Five years ago the American arm of the Japanese manufacturing giant announced a move from southern California to a suburb of Dallas. In an April interview with trade publication Automotive News, Toyota’s North American CEO Jim Lentz let us know who came close but short: Charlotte and Atlanta.
Perhaps worse for Atlanta’s ego following on the recent news
that Charlotte is poaching yet another large bank headquarters with BB&T’s
recent merger with SunTrust, Charlotte was ahead of Atlanta. According to Lentz, Charlotte’s problem was
that there wasn’t enough housing available for the influx of managers and
executives that would transfer. Toyota
says 65% of its workforce took advantage of the opportunity to relocate.
So what kept those people from becoming Georgians instead of
Southern California is known for some of the worst traffic
in the country. So is Atlanta.
“It would have been a
lot of the same California issues, and you would have traded traffic for
traffic,” Lentz told Automotive News.
He went on to say that he wasn’t willing to trade problem for problem,
but had to be sure he had to make life better for his employees willing to go
through the hassle of a relocation.
Georgia officials would be
quick to point out that Dallas’ traffic isn’t much better than Atlanta’s. There is a notable difference of perception
however. Dallas’ light rail system has
been in a constant state of expansion, with extensions completed in 2002, 2010,
2014, and 2016. Texas has also expanded
their freeway network on a regular basis, whereas Georgia is still recovering
from decades of population growth while maintaining highway construction
spending among the lowest per capita in the country.
Georgia began to address
the highway spending problem with a change in the gas tax formula in 2015. The additional revenue raised, however, has
mostly been addressing deferred maintenance and major interchange improvements
throughout the state. Planned
improvements for the metro Atlanta area include a system of toll lanes similar
to those recently opened northwest of the city on I-75.
Transit solutions have
proven more elusive. While a 2018 law
brokered a “transit governance” agreement to bring Atlanta’s suburbs and MARTA
serving urban core to the same table, funding transit expansion has proven more
Gwinnett County, the
largest county in the state currently not served by MARTA, rejected an
expansion plan into the county earlier this year. Meanwhile, tens of thousands continue to move
into the region every year.
It’s not completely a
situation that, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, is where no one comes to Atlanta
anymore because it’s too crowded. Sandy
Springs Georgia managed to land Mercedes Benz’s North American Headquarters
after Toyota passed on the region.
Mercedes HQ location is both near existing MARTA rail service and the
development includes significant new housing construction made available to
As such, Toyota’s
revelation is but a single data point, but an important one nonetheless. Competition for high paying jobs is as
intense as ever, and the company has let the world know of a perceived weakness
in the sales pitch of the “number one state to do business”. It’s also a direct signal to Georgia’s
political and business community not to rest on past accomplishments.