ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Governor seizes on magazine rankings

Deal pitches Georgia’s business climate as validation for re-election.

By Greg Bluestein gbluestein@ajc.com

A niche publication’s blessing of Georgia’s business climate wouldn’t typically garner much attention. But for Gov. Nathan Deal, who seeks a second term on a platform of job creation, Site Selection magazine’s endorsement of the state became the unofficial kickoff of his quest for a second term.

In an elaborately staged Statehouse event, Deal stood side by side with Republican lieutenants and corporate executives from Home Depot and UPS as he portrayed the magazine’s endorsement of Georgia as the top place to do business as validation for his first term in office. He quickly followed with a not-so-subtle pitch for a second.

“We’re just at the beginning,” Deal said. “We’re going to continue to grow, and we’re going to continue to get better.”

How he intends to do that, though, remains largely undefined, and the emergence of two Republican challengers has done little to change his message. Aside from a long-range push to overhaul the school funding formula, Deal has said little about the initiatives he’d tackle if voters give him an extra four years in the Governor’s Mansion.

“We will constantly monitor whether there are additional statutory changes to make,” he said when pushed on that question Monday. “For right now, what we are doing appears to be working. This is the culmination of many of the changes that have been put in place in terms of tax reform and regulatory reform.”

The editor of the publication, which isn’t exactly a household name but is widely read in economic development circles, talked of how Georgia beat out North Carolina through a formula involving surveys, projects and tax analyses. Georgia, whose other top rival is Texas, has had five top 10 placements in the past five years.

And a parade of corporate executives took turns beside Deal to explain why they chose to expand their businesses in Georgia. Each talked of easy access to Atlanta’s booming airport, a skilled workforce and comparatively low taxes that enticed their businesses to stay.

“We could have chosen any state in the country,” said Frank Blake, Home Depot’s chief executive, “but we chose the state of Georgia for a reason.”

Whether the ranking will attract more new jobs is unknown. Site Selection is one of a half-dozen publications with similar systems, and Georgia has long been in the top 10 of many. Wesley Tharpe of the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said it was a “fairly meaningless measure” that doesn’t factor key metrics such as household income levels.

Deal’s political opponents were also eager to downplay the ranking. Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who is trying to seize on tea party undercurrents to oust Deal, said through a spokesman that the governor is “trying to source an obscure magazine to claim an accomplishment that does not exist.”

And Superintendent John Barge, who contends the governor isn’t doing enough to boost education, lamented Georgia’s stubborn employment rate, which hovers above 8 percent and lags much of the rest of the nation, and talked of school districts forced to scale back classroom days and put teachers on furlough.

“That’s all well and good, but at what expense?” Barge said of the award. “We may be the No. 1 place to do business, but we’re not even funding public education at the same level we funded it in 1985.”

Deal, however, saw it as a pitch-perfect opportunity to make good on a campaign vow. As he travels the state, he often opens speeches by saying he wants to make Georgia the No. 1 place in the nation to do business. At least in this metric, Deal said, he was able to fulfill that goal.

“I did what I promised,” he said.