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Improving the state of the city Featured

2:21pm EDT April 27, 2004
Sam Williams' first duty upon being named president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce in 1997 was to develop a plan for the city following the 1996 Olympic games. Since then, he has focused the chamber's efforts on attracting businesses in key sectors, including biosciences, logistics and telecommunications.

Covering the 20 counties that comprise the Greater Atlanta business community, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce provides guidance and services to some 6,000 enterprises, tens of thousands of workers and more than 4 million residents in one of the fastest growing business meccas in the country. Under Williams' leadership, the chamber's efforts -- in an area that stretches 100 miles across -- have been so successful that Inc magazine recently named Atlanta the best place to start a business.

"That's pretty good judgment," Williams says.

Williams' roots in Atlanta's business community run deep. Prior to joining the MACC, he served as president of Central Atlanta Progress, where he organized downtown leaders to create a privatized police force. That effort helped halve the crime rate and sparked a resurgence in downtown residential living.

During Williams' tenure at Central Atlanta Progress, 1,000 new loft apartments were built in the city's heart and a long-range plan was created to redevelop the area around Centennial Olympic Park.

Today, as chamber president, his attention is focused on the metro Atlanta business community.

Smart Business spoke with him about the future of the region and the chamber's part in it.

How is the chamber working to improve the economic outlook of the region?

We're marketing metro Atlanta for corporate headquarters, like Newell Rubbermaid (which is moving to the Atlanta area later this year), and to other companies like Rayovac (which planned to move to Atlanta by May 1).

We're currently negotiating with three big companies about moving to metro Atlanta. We're also targeting specific industries that are strong here and trying to lure more new companies and expand the ones that are here now.

We're focusing on logistics, biotechnology and on information technology. The logistics industry has 80,000 jobs in metro Atlanta. Schneider (National Inc.) just opened a big operation here. We are looking to find the niche industries that we are very strong in and also industries growing on a global basis, so we can capture a bigger market share.

Doesn't excluding certain sectors, such as manufacturing, limit the region's potential?

We don't believe that manufacturing is a long-term opportunity for metro Atlanta. It's not what we do best. There are other areas of the country that can undercut us on wages and, indeed, offshore manufacturing is undercutting many of the businesses that are in other parts of the nation.

Logistics, biotechnology, information technology and free trade of the Americas -- getting the corporate headquarters here, the Secretariat for this 34-nation trading block -- is a very key issue. Those are the four things we're working on to grow the economy and bring more jobs here.

Metro Atlanta has a reputation, and that's one of the reasons we're able to attract companies like Rubbermaid. One of the key questions they wanted to know was, 'If we move there and we need to hire 1,000 people, can we fill the positions?'

Metro Atlanta has always had the enviable position of being able to lure workers from around the nation. It has a low cost of living, a very high-skill work force, and it is a politically friendly place for business, unlike California, for example, where the cost of living is astronomical and the regulatory impact on business is causing such a negative attitude that a lot of companies are leaving.

Is the chamber focusing on other areas as well?

One is to reduce congestion in our transportation system. We're actively engaged with Georgia (Department of Transportation), with (the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority) and the Atlanta Regional Commission, putting more money into transportation and spending it on a priority basis to fix the worst congestion first.

The second thing we're working on is improving public education in the metro area so businesses, wherever they are, partner with their local schools to help improve student testing scores and support the local school systems. We have an active task force made up of 14 superintendents from 11 counties in metro Atlanta meeting with business CEOs on just that issue.

Making a city vibrant is more than just providing business opportunities. Does the chamber delve into other quality of life issues?

We have a regional arts council that we helped form. Art is a quality of life issue. The big issue today among cities is not just recruiting companies.

Young, talented people coming out of college can live anywhere they want. Many of them choose where they want to live first and then they figure out who they want to work for.

When I was a student at Georgia Tech, you interviewed with a company, and wherever the company sent you is where you went. That's not the case today. Quality of life, sports, neighborhoods, congestion are all very critical factors in the attractiveness of a city.

As one youngster in Silicon Valley asked me, 'Is Atlanta an FPLM town?' I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'For People Like Me. If I come there, is there a multicultural environment? Is there a bohemian environment that I'm going to enjoy socializing or living near? Can I go to night classes at the universities? Can I meet people like me very quickly and not take a year to do so?'

Those are the kinds of things that, marketing cities, we have to pay attention to. Arts is a critical part of that, as is professional sports.

What about politics?

We're in the general assembly almost every day. I think we're pretty unique. We like to say this is not your father's chamber of commerce.

One of the things that we're doing is that we're very active in helping reform regional government. We're trying to get the regional government to function as a region rather than 20 different counties and 109 municipalities. We have corporate CEOs who are much more ambivalent about county boundaries and municipal boundaries and say that this region has to function as a regional economy.

The U.S. Commerce Department just told us that we added 63,000 jobs in the last 12 months -- that's net increase, new hires minus layoffs. That makes us the fastest growing region in the nation. We held that title during much of the '90s.

This economy is roaring back, and what we're trying to make sure is, don't just take this success for granted, but get out there and say we have to anticipate that the transportation and the water and the land use issues have to be looked at 10, 20 years ahead of time.

We've got to advocate solutions for them so that we don't lose the quality of life that most people move here for. How to reach: Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, (404) 880-9000 or www.metroatlantachamber.com