The Real Economy

How can Atlanta spur economic growth?

Kai Ryssdal Mar 5, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: It’s Monday the 5th of March. We’re at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta today because, first of all, Atlanta’s always a nice place to visit. But also, if you wanna do what we do — that is take apart some of the economics behind the 2012 presidential campaign — there’s no place better to be than Atlanta, Ga. This state has more delegates on the line than any of the nine other states voting tomorrow in Super Tuesday. That’ll be handy for the winner, of course. Our election coverage this year, though, is about what’s gonna really matter come November. This thing called: The Real Economy.

Chances are if you’ve ever been to Atlanta, you came on a plane. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is one of the busiest in the world. More than 92 million people passed through here last year, including me yesterday to meet up with Marketplace’s David Gura and our production team.

David Gura: Did you sleep at all?

Ryssdal: No, it was horrible.

David’s been here for a couple of days reporting, poking around, looking for signs of economic promise — one of which he found almost as soon as he got here. A brand-spankin’ new $1.4 billion international terminal.

Gura: So you were mentioning that the architecture of the Beijing Airport. What they say they’re emphasizing here is a sort of oppenness. It’s vast.

Ryssdal: Yeah, right. That’s exactly it. Openness, people flowing, that’s the whole deal. Honest to god, it does remind me of Beijing.

Gura: There’s this amazing ceiling, it sort of undulates like a wind currency.

It is spiffy. Wide open, floor-to-ceiling windows, lotsa light. Reminds me, like you heard me say, of the new terminal in Beijing, China. But it’s weird,though, ’cause the place is empty. As in no passengers, completely quiet. It’s not gonna open for another couple of months. The computers are still wrapped in plastic, floors are covered with plywood. But as always, airport life goes on.

Airport sound

Ryssdal: I love that sound. I love that there’s that announcement even though there’s nothing happening.

There’s a saying they used to have about the airport here — that it didn’t matter if you were going to heaven or hell, you had to pass through Atlanta. It’s not so true anymore, but a whole slew of companies are putting themselves right near Hartsfield all the same.

Ryssdal: We talk about aiports as leaders of growth and examples of cities on the rise and all this stuff. It actually happens to be true here. There are things happening down in this part of Atlanta that — were it not for this airport — wouldn’t be.

Gura: Right. I mean, it’s funny, we’re in this little oasis here. This is the technically city of Atlanta property. But around here, a bunch of these small towns. They’ve really grown up around this airport. People talk about the creation of this sort of aeropolis.

Ryssdal: Wow, big word — aeropolis.

Gura: Attracting of business to the airport. Also biotech, a lot of warehouses as a result of the cargo operations here as well.

About 10 minutes south of the airport, down Highway 85, is one of those little towns and one of those biotech companies David was talking about. Dendreon, it’s called. It does blood treatments for prostate cancer. Draws blood from patients all over the country and then flies ’em into plants here and in three other cities.

Ryssdal: All right, so the first thing that hits you is there is nothing glamorous about biotech baby. This is just a box in a city near an airport. Right? But that’s really what it’s about. It’s about getting the product in and out.

Gura: Absolutely. So I went inside the nerve center in this facility. Big-screen in the front — CNN’s on in the left, Weather Channel on the right. They’ve got information about airport departures and arrivals. They’re tracking all of that. If you gave blood in Seattle, normally it’d go to the facility in Orange County. But if there’s a storm, they can divert it if they need to to come here.

Ryssdal: Right.

Gura: I talked to Tony Rotunno. He runs this operation here. And the thing about this airport is they said they can reach 80 percent of the population in the U.S. within a two hour flight.

Tony Rotunno: Our product is heavily dependent on logistics. And that’s time-to-patient. So we have very tight timelines once we manufacture the product to get it back to the patient. I mean, we’re talking like 18 hours here. So you can see that the logistics are critical.

Logistics are what airports are all about, when you really think about it. But we wanted to get the official word on Atlanta and its economy. Because for decades this was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, that growth all but stopped four years ago, though. From 2010 to 2011 Atlanta lost more jobs than any other metro area in the country. Lost jobs. That thing that the real economy’s all about and has been for a good couple of years. The Brookings Institution ranked Atlanta 189th in economic growth globally last year. Athens, Greece — not Georgia — came in just 11 spots lower. So we got Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on the phone to ask about that. And the first thing he talked about was the airport and what he thinks this $1.4 billion project can do for his town.

Kasim Reed: Well, what we know is — not just locally, but nationally — infrastructure is the most productive driver of job creation that we have. So in Atlanta, the international terminal is a major capital and infrastucture project that’s meeting an urgent need. Last year in the city of Atlanta, we had more than a 7 percent increase in international traffic. Folks believe that we will have a 30 percent increase in international traffic by 2015. So that is a sound investment that’s being funded by Hartsfield–Jackson Airport and helping the overall economy in the city of Atlanta.

Ryssdal: Atlanta is an intersting city because it has been a boomtown. I mean, you can only call it a boomtown for 20 years. I went to school at Emory and when I was there — more than 20 years ago — there was one skyscraper in the skyline, the Peachtree Plaza. And now it’s…

Reed: There are about 40.

Ryssdal: Yeah. It’s crazy, but can that last? I mean, you guys have had a tough couple of years. How do you get back?

Reed: I think we’re going to be just fine. The fact of the matter is, we’re suffering a bit more because, as you said, for the last 10 years we have been a boomtown. So I think we’re going to be fine and the reason I think we’re going to be fine is because we’re attracting highly-educated, talented people consistently. We have the second most well-educated metropolitan area on the Eastern seaboard, second to Boston, Mass.

Ryssdal: Atlanta is home to a lot of real big companies — Delta, Home Depot, UPS, and a whole bunch of ’em.

Reed: CNN.

Ryssdal: Yeah, CNN. That’s right. What are you doing, though, to get new companies to come to town ’cause you’ve got to get those new companies to get the new, smart young, people to come. Right?

Reed: What we’re doing is staying on the road and going to where talent is and also making sure that in the midst of these tough times we don’t overregulate or add incomforts to business. We’re also, in the midst of these really hard times, investing more money in providing credits to businesses that need them and really just letting everbody know that we’re open for business.

Ryssdal: How do you translate that open-for-business attitude though — and Georgia and Atlanta have been pro-business for decades now — how do you make that translate into prosperity for those at the lowest end who need other kinds of help?

Reed: I think you make it translate by keeping your cost strucutre low and by investing in the fundamentals. So right now, even though we’ve had a lot of excuses to raise taxes in the city of Atlanta, we have not. We’re investing more in public safety at a time when other people are laying off police. You might say, what does that have to do with small business creation? Well I think the capital goes where it’s needed and stays where it’s well-cared for. So you have to have an overall environment that is healthy and welcoming.

Ryssdal: On the theory that you are a guy who could get President Obama on the phone and Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul — you could get any of those guys on the phone if you wanted to — what would you tell them?

Reed: I would tell them that the future of politics for Republicans and Democrats is performance. And that people really care so little about party affiliation right now that everybody is going to be judged on delivering. And I would tell them I hope that after all of the ballots are cast and counted in Novemeber, I hope that we can get back to work. So much has been put on hold because we knew an election was coming up. So I hope that with a four-year runway, we can get back to healing the United States of America.

Ryssdal: Kasim Reed, the mayor of Atlanta, thanks so much for your time.

Reed: Thank you.

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