Today’s Athens Banner-Herald editorial asserts that Athens is “not ready to attract the kinds of industries that could provide jobs for those young professionals.” In support of this assertion, the editorial points to the failure to develop a high-tech industrial park near the intersection of U.S. Highway 78 and Georgia Highway 316, the failure to attract two pharmaceutical manufacturers to the area and the failure of the effort to land a new federal animal disease research laboratory.
If instead of failing, Athens had succeed at building that high-tech industrial park, and getting those pharmaceutical jobs and the federal laboratory, it’s possible Athens would now be securely on the path to becoming a “cool” city. But I doubt it.
There’s always a little bit of the chicken or the egg conundrum to questions about local economic development strategy, but part of the reason Athens isn’t attracting the kind of high-tech firms and jobs we want is that Athens just isn’t a “cool” enough city yet.
Tax breaks and cheap land usually aren’t enough to attract high-tech firms—whose success is keyed to their ability to attract talented workers (that is, the kind of people who want to live in cool cities)—to specific communities. The firms want to locate in places their potential employees want to live.
And what kind of places are those? Well, as the editorial suggests, they are places that have “invested in the elements of cultural coolness: good coffee, good food and good music.” Athens certainly has a decent share of that kind of coolness, but I think there’s more to the story than that. There’s good reason to believe that many young educated professionals today also want to live in walkable neighborhoods where you can get groceries, go out to eat, play at a park, listen to music or go to a bar without always having to get in your car.
The talent of the local labor pool is certainly among the most important factors in determining where high tech firms will locate. The trouble is it’s really hard for local governments to do anything very direct about improving the talent pool of existing residents. But if they want to, local governments can make big improvements in local infrastructure, in making walkable neighborhoods, creating lively downtowns and fostering lively cultural scenes. And these amenities—which are quite tangible and easily perceptible—are proven talent attractors.
Of course, Athens should continue to court high-tech firms to move here. Of course, Athens should try to make it as easy as possible and prudent for employers to move here. Keep in mind, though, that because Athens is home to a large, well-regarded university and already has a solid reputation as a culturally lively spot, the city doesn’t have to beg for attention from employers. We’ll keep getting glances at least.
But if we want to start “winning” more in terms of getting employers to move here, then I think we need to change our economic development strategy.Instead of scrambling to accommodate whatever random suitor-firms wink at us, let’s adopt an economic development strategy that prioritizes enhancing walkability and cultural vitality in central Athens. (Personally, I think Athens needs more work on the walkability front—that is, on increasing density, creating “complete” streets,” more mixed-use development—than it does on the cultural front.) This sort of strategy, I think, will likely be more effective in getting more employers to say “yes” to locating here. It also has the advantage of being something that local governments can actually do reasonably well.