Blogging has been a little light this week because I’ve spent most of it traveling and reporting in South Georgia. I was visiting some rural hospitals that are struggling financially, to get a better feel for how a new state tax credit might help them. I was also taking in the condition of that part of the state more generally, and I’ll have some posts coming about these topics.
No sooner had I gotten back than a friend who grew up in that part of the state sent me this ranking of the poorest cities in America. It includes five cities (really metropolitan statistical areas; we aren’t talking about small towns here) from Georgia. That’s more on the top 25 than from any other state; Texas has four, and there are three apiece from Arkansas, Florida and North Carolina.
As the friend observed, four of the five in Georgia are at or below the center of the state geographically: Albany, Macon, Hinesville and Valdosta. (The fifth is Athens.) While metro Atlanta booms and looks for solutions to the problems that come with growth, much of South Georgia would love to have problems coming from too much growth for a change.
As the presidential election results have been parsed, much has been made of the economically struggling areas in the Midwest that switched from backing Barack Obama to supporting Donald Trump. Half a dozen counties in Middle and Southwest Georgia did the same, although it appears those flips were due to lower turnout. In three counties that flipped from blue to red, Trump won despite receiving fewer votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012; it’s just that the Democratic vote fell off by an even larger number.
Then again, Trump’s message of restoring American manufacturing wasn’t really tailored to South Georgia, which struggles more with a failure to respond to changes in agriculture. Here’s how my friend, a sharp businessman who has worked all around the state in his career, described it:
“South Georgia has been slowly fading for 20-plus years. It needs a new economic driver on the order of Atlanta’s airport or Savannah’s seaport. Those South Georgia cities were built on agriculture, which has become so corporate and tech centered that it just doesn’t employ people, at the farm level, the way it used to, and all of South Georgia was built on that foundation. The leaders down there have failed to reinvent themselves economically. … Valdosta would be worse if it didn’t rest on government dollars from the Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Transportation and the Department of Health and Human Services. Outside of these areas there isn’t much employment, period, in Valdosta, and what is there doesn’t pay very well. Look at the old agriculture river cities, Hawkinsville, Dublin, Abbeville, Milledgeville, Macon, etc. They were in their heyday when we still floated our cotton down the mighty Altamaha to Darien and then to cotton mills in England. Once rail and then interstate came, if those conveyances did not go through those towns, the towns began to decay. I am not sure what the answer could be for those places and I rack my brain for the answer all of the time. I would love to help them.”
His point about government dollars could be applied elsewhere. Hinesville is heavily dependent on Fort Stewart; Macon is tied in large part to Robins Air Force Base. Even Athens, which lies in the faster-growing north of the state, for years has had the University of Georgia and too little else (although the Caterpillar and, a little farther away, Baxter plants should provide a boost). In Albany, the buzz was about a single craft brewery that plans to open. At least it will make something: That counts for a lot when economic development there, I was told by one person who’s a close and longtime observer of local happenings, too often is more likely to come in the form of a new chain restaurant.
The 2018 state elections will be upon us before we know it, and here is a theme to which I plan to return over and over: The candidates we need for governor and other offices will be those who understand this state needs to pull two levers at one time. One to help metro Atlanta deal with its growth, and another to help much of the rest of Georgia find some. The latter won’t be easy, as typical government “solutions” revolve around ideas such as building conference centers or tourist attractions. Places like Albany have both; they haven’t spurred the intended growth. Better approaches are needed.