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The Nation

As Atlanta Revs Up, So Too May the U.S. Economy

November 28, 2003|Peter G. Gosselin | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Stephen and Elaine Zager did their bit for economic recovery this fall by opening a Captain Dollar discount store in suburban Toco Hills and hiring 11 employees.

But the sixtysomething couple went into business only after losing so much in the stock market that they had to come out of retirement and put off plans to travel the world.

At Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Deputy General Manager Mario Diaz sees evidence of economic rebound in climbing passenger totals, up 1 million in each of the last two years after being down 5 million the year before that.

But Diaz acknowledges that most of the improvement is the result of deeply troubled Delta Air Lines' shrinking operations elsewhere and consolidating at Hartsfield. The move is producing a big jump in transfer passengers who dash from one plane to another, but only a modest gain in the travelers who really count -- those who fly in and out of the region for business or pleasure.

True to its civic symbol, the phoenix, Atlanta is rising again from the ashes of the tech, telecom and travel busts. In fact, by measure of employment, it is growing at the fastest pace of any major metropolitan center in America.

The region's gain of 65,700 jobs through September was the largest of any of the 272 metropolitan areas that are followed by the U.S. Labor Department -- and a vastly better showing than such larger centers as New York, which lost 41,500 jobs, and Los Angeles-Long Beach, which lost 39,700.

"Georgia's economic performance will best that of the nation next year, and the Atlanta metropolitan area will account for almost all of it," predicted University of Georgia economist Jeffrey M. Humphreys.

If the rest of the country follows suit -- as the most recent growth statistics suggest it is doing -- the U.S. might be headed for an economic reprise of the roaring '90s, the Bush administration's tax cuts might be credited, and the president might be in for an easy reelection bid next fall.

But in the engine room of this region's economy, no great gear has turned yet, no piston fired. Instead, what has fanned the economic fires to date seems to have been an amalgam of tide-me-over decisions, such as the Zagers', and small borrowings from elsewhere, such as Hartsfield's. Said a cautious Sam A. Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce: "We're seeing signs we're getting back to where we were before the trouble, but I wouldn't bet the horse and barn on it just yet."


By all rights, the Atlanta region -- with a population of close to 4 million -- should not be anywhere near the size it is. Perched high on the rocky piedmont of northwest Georgia, it has just a single, minor river -- the Chattahoochee -- to bring it water and remove its runoff.

But for most of the last four decades, it has grown like gangbusters, lifted by such American corporate icons as Coca-Cola and regional giants as BellSouth, and helped by the arrival of such transplants as Delta and United Parcel Service.

"We prided ourselves that we weren't Silicon Valley, but we had high-tech; we weren't New York, but we had finance; we weren't Detroit, but we had manufacturing," said Tom Noonan, chief executive of Atlanta-based Internet Security Systems Inc. "We thought we were recession-proof."

The trouble began in January 2000, months before much of the country had any clue that the '90s boom was coming to a close. And it started at the most unlikely of businesses, Coca-Cola Co., which hadn't had a major layoff in its century-plus history headquartered in Atlanta.

Jeff Herle was a senior marketing executive who had been with Coke for 22 years.

"When they announced the layoffs, it was a big shock inside the company," Herle said earlier this month. Executives said that Coke was cutting its payroll by 14% worldwide and almost 20% in the U.S.

Herle managed to escape the first round of cuts, but he wasn't so lucky earlier this year when the company announced a second round. In March, at 43, with a wife and two children in private school, he was out.

So were tens of thousands of other Atlanta-area workers. Indeed, between fall 2001 and spring this year, the regional economy posted the longest string of monthly job losses since the Labor Department began keeping records.

State tax collections and lottery ticket sales tumbled, hotel rooms emptied, and Macy's, downtown's only major department store, shut.

"We got whacked," said Noonan, the Internet Security chief executive. "Every one of the sectors we thought made us so diverse and recession-proof took it on the chin."

Today, Atlanta is back to adding jobs pell-mell. And some elements of its nascent comeback are easily traceable to the decisions of public officials and business leaders.

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