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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

January 11, 2013 at 10:20 AM

Seattle vs. Atlanta, the economy game

With all eyes on the Seahawks game, let’s look at Atlanta as an economic player and the lessons that might be learned. In sheer bulk, Atlanta is most impressive, with the nation’s ninth-largest metropolitan area (vs. Seattle at 15) and more Fortune 500 headquarters than all but three other cities, including that of Coca-Cola, United Parcel Service (founded here), Home Depot and Delta Air Lines. It is a highly educated metro, with Georgia Tech, Emory University, Morehouse College, Spellman College, among others. CNN broadcasts from Atlanta.

It was not always so. In the 1950s, nearly a century after General Sherman’s urban renewal project, Atlanta was only one of three important Southern cities, along with Birmingham and New Orleans. Especially unlike Birmingham, Atlanta chose to invest heavily in building up its airport and, critically, in working to maintain racial harmony. Martin Luther King Jr. was from Atlanta and found it a largely safe harbor in an otherwise hate-filled white South during the civil rights era. This left Atlanta perfectly positioned to benefit from the huge Sun Belt migration of companies, investment and people, skyrocketing commercial aviation and the rise of the African-American middle class.

The essential Atlanta novel for your pre-game reading is not Gone With the Wind, but Tom Wolfe’s 1998 A Man in Full. Among other things, it perfectly illuminates Atlanta’s boosterish, grasping business focus. This is no laid-back town. Like Seattle, it has stewards willing to invest in the region and much affluence (it also has horrendous pockets of poverty). An excellent history is Gary Pomerantz’s Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn.

The downside: Metro Atlanta is a livability mess. Even though it got the heavy-rail transit system we foolishly declined in the late 1960s, traffic is a disaster. Atlanta is one of the most sprawled-out cities in America, with business heavily decentralized across several counties and probably hundreds of office “parks.” Yet the result is a commuting nightmare and the politics of race, class and ideology have made addressing this with better transit impossible. The city of Atlanta is less populous than Seattle and in most cases much less livable. Downtown is dead; even the newspaper decamped for the suburbs.

Atlanta is less hip and less innovative than Seattle. It faces a much more challenging future with climate change and lack of public investment, not only from rising temperatures, humidity and migration of tropical diseases, but also water shortages (largely an infrastructure problem). Despite the huge sunken costs of the past half century, Atlanta is going to have a difficult time being sustainable in the long run.

That said, Atlanta competes with Seattle for talent and capital on a world-class level. It lacks alpha-level clusters in aerospace, software, biosciences and, increasingly, world health. It doesn’t have a port. But it is a formidible rival, with both positive and negative lessons to teach.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

This is what we need

The Maloofs in Seattle

Invite George Shinn, too

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