Charlie Harper: Five Georgias: The Coast

Charlie Harper

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

For the past few weeks we’ve been taking a look at the regions that make up the political and economic coalitions that influence the politics and policy governing Georgia.  Gone are the days of “Two Georgias”, where there was “Atlanta” and everything else, mostly rural. 

For the past two weeks we looked at the two Atlantas – the Urban Core, and the Atlanta Suburbs.  Today we begin with the part of “rural Georgia” that isn’t that rural and in many ways looks and acts a lot more like Suburban Atlanta than the folks in The Mountains or the non-coastal counties of South Georgia.

We’ll start breaking down “other Georgia” with The Coast because it was Georgia before there wasn’t any other Georgia.  There’s also the history of asserting an open independence from and superiority over Atlanta.  My friends from Savannah have long gone on record as telling anyone that would listen that “if Atlanta could suck as hard as it blows, it would have a port too”. 

Coastal Georgia is anchored by Savannah not just in population but as an economic engine as well.  They have earned their independence from Atlanta in the business community. 

A while back I was discussing a possible Atlantic trade alliance with a representative of the government of one of our European trading partners.  I asked him when he kept referring to “Georgia” as a place he was interested in doing business did he really mean “Atlanta”.  He paused, and then quickly added “And Savannah”.

The Port of Savannah is now the 4th largest and fasted container port in the country.  Gulfstream Aerospace provides high wage engineering and manufacturing jobs in Savannah, and also in Brunswick. 

Tourism adds additional dollars to tax coffers throughout the coastal region.  And the federal government adds a stable job base from Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield in the north to the naval submarine base at Kings Bay in St. Mary’s, with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at Brunswick in between.

Coastal Georgia is separated from their neighbors in South Georgia on issues of growth – again, both economic and population growth.  High quality of life combined with economic opportunity are attracting new residents and businesses to the area.  Unlike South Georgia where the growth problem is one of losing residents, Coastal Georgia’s challenge is to recognize the opportunities that lie before them, recognize them, plan for them, and manage them.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself eating Sunday dinner in Darian Georgia with 5 complete strangers.  One couple had moved from East Cobb County to St. Simons when the husband had retired from Lockheed.  Another had started his law practice in Marietta before moving to McIntosh County mid-career.  One lady had grown up in Rome Georgia before recently moving to the coast.  Only one was a native of the region, but she had just moved back.

The similarity to Suburban Atlanta became evident when I began asking questions about why folks were moving there, which was asked with the preface “If I wanted to move here…”. 

The reply was quick, and identical to what I heard from many of my new neighbors that moved in to Fayette County as we grew from about 15,000 residents in 1970 to over 100,000 residents thirty years later.  “You don’t want to move here.  It’s too crowded.”

Like Suburban Atlantans as we detailed last week, the residents of Georgia’s coastal region limit their own power with a lack of self-awareness. They too often join in electoral and legislative battles with their neighbors in the rest of South Georgia – arguably the region with the least political clout.  Many also remain in denial of the growth going on around them, hoping that if it is ignored it and the challenges it brings will just go away.

A South Georgia legislator responded to the beginning of this series objecting to removing the Coast from the rest of South Georgia.  His reasoning was that social and religious issues kept the entire area South Georgia one, and that if I wasn’t from “Atlanta”, I would understand this.  He hails from one of the more rural coastal counties, and is correct that social conservatism is alive and well in Coastal Georgia politics.

What he is missing is that everyone in the Atlanta suburbs isn’t a godless humanist, and that many also argue that they aren’t part of Atlanta, suburb or not. 

People in Jasper, Bartow, Heard, and Dawson counties would probably argue that they don’t belong in the Atlanta suburbs either.  And it is true the closer you get to Atlanta’s Urban Core, the less dominant social conservatism is even in GOP political circles.

The challenge for Coastal Georgians and their politics is quite similar of those in Suburban Atlanta. For them to realize the political power that they have, they will have to realize the similarities of challenges facing residents of Chatham and Cobb, and those facing Camden and Carroll. 

Growth is the future of The Coast and The Atlanta Suburbs.  If each region could collaborate more effectively by recognizing their similarities, they have the potential to form a majority coalition in the legislature and in statewide elections.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.