When Nathan Deal became governor almost five years ago, Georgia was the 10th-largest state by population. Today it’s ranked eighth. In 2040, given current growth trajectories nationwide, an additional 4 million Georgians will push our state past Ohio, Pennsylvania and possibly Illinois to the top five.
Let me make a prediction now: If the vast majority of those 4 million people try to cram themselves into metro Atlanta, a great many of them — and us — will wish they never came.
Practically speaking, there is no way it can continue to absorb such a disproportionate share of the growth of the state’s population or economy. Understand, this is a pro-Atlanta sentiment. The capital region will always be Georgia’s population hub and biggest economic engine. But we already have a huge task of marshalling resources just to catch up with the growth we’ve already experienced and haven’t accommodated. We’ll be truly swamped if some of the growth doesn’t go elsewhere.
You already know about traffic around Atlanta. So consider another example: the size of high schools.
Before 2000, the Georgia High School Association placed its members in just four classifications: A through AAAA. Since then it has added a 5A division, then a 6A, and starting next fall a 7A. In that largest classification, enrollments range from 2,092 to 3,998. Only four of the 48 mega-schools in 7A are outside metro Atlanta; there are five just in Forsyth County.
The 131 counties outside metro Atlanta have 22 schools in either 6A or 7A. Gwinnett County alone has 19, four of which have opened since 2009.
It’s not only that the resources required to build ever more, and larger, schools might be put to other uses. Our one-sided growth tends to attract still more Georgians toward the metro region, exacerbating the strain on the region and the drain on the rest of the state.
There are bright spots elsewhere. Savannah and Brunswick have seen tremendous growth through their ports and should continue to do so. Augusta is beginning to capitalize on the Army’s decision to put its Cyber Command at Fort Gordon, attracting private defense contractors. Macon, after decades of shrinking, is starting to see a reversal thanks to “the three M’s”: Mercer University, medicine and the military.
But it will take all this and more, in places like Athens and Rome and Albany, to relieve some of the growth pains Atlanta continues to suffer. Atlanta may never have intrastate counterweights the way the largest cities in states like Texas and Florida do. But it would be nice to be more like North Carolina, which has four metro areas larger than Georgia’s second-biggest.
The big question, of course, is how to achieve more balance. Some solutions are already in the works, from rethinking public education to building out road and rail infrastructure so people and goods needn’t pass through Atlanta if that’s not their destination. Some solutions are still being sought, such as shoring up health care in rural areas.
And some will have to come from the next crop of state leaders, in business as well as politics. Candidates in the latter group would do well to put some real thought into this question between now and 2018.