Georgia chamber president congratulates Augusta on its ‘untold story’ of success

Georgia Chamber of Commerce President Chris Clark said Augusta’s recent surge is “probably the best untold story” today in Georgia economic development. RHIAN SWAIN/SPECIAL

The Georgia General Assembly has heavy lifting to do in 2018, and the important workloads can be divided into three buckets.

 

That’s part of how the leader of the state’s Chamber of Commerce described Georgia’s political future Tuesday morning at the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Pre-Session Legislative Breakfast at the Legends Club.

Georgia Chamber President Chris Clark first congratulated Augusta’s leaders for their part in “perhaps the best untold story” of success for economic development in the state right now.

The Augusta area in general, and the city’s downtown in particular, has seen a sharp uptick in development stemming largely from military growth – and civilian business-sector support – of the U.S. Army Cyber Command that will rebase at Fort Gordon by 2020.

“I was talking about y’all last week, and I honestly believe that what’s happening in Augusta is really a miracle over the last five years,” Clark said. “You guys have transformed this community in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Seven thousand jobs last year? That’s absolutely incredible.”

Clark considers the 2018 state legislative session as “a speed bump” on the way to an important midterm election cycle. Clark anticipates a “quick session” of the General Assembly during which the issues can be divided into three “buckets” – what must happen, what probably will happen and what residents wish would happen.

The “must” is submitting a state budget, and Clark said the biggest challenge there is a projected $350 million-plus shortfall in the state pension system – even amid projected revenue growth.

“I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t find $350 million just lying around at home,” he said. “It takes work to find those dollars.”

The “wish” list for Georgia legislators is “a mile long” of “things that need to get done,” Clark said. The items he mentioned will have an impact on Georgia’s economic future depending on how each issue is handled.

That list includes reauthorizing billions of dollars for roads and bridges; cybersecurity legislation that Clark said should be “punishing the criminals and not the victims”; better overall access to quality health care; addressing opioid addiction; and turning around rural Georgia, in which, Clark said, 74 counties are losing population and 70 counties are losing jobs.

What will probably “dominate local headlines,” since 2018 is an election year, will be legislative debate and bill introductions statewide over hot-button issues with voters, including gun laws, abortion and religious freedom – “the very thing that Amazon has told every state could be a deal-killer,” he said.

Amazon, the gigantic online retailer, is shopping around for a location for a $5 billion second headquarters expected to employ about 50,000 people. Possible corporate entanglements with states’ proposed religious-freedom legislation has been identified as a factor in choosing – or not choosing – a location.

“I hate election-year sessions, because people are trying to score political points if they’re running for some other office, and many of your peers are running for other offices,” Clark said.

He also worries that “a partisan debate over Confederate memorials” will consume precious legislative time, and is “the exact kind of thing that will turn off companies that are looking to come to the state of Georgia and to this community.”

Clark urged productive bipartisan debate to reach solutions.

“I’m not saying we don’t need to address these issues, but I’m saying we can do it in a sense of partnership and bipartisanship,” he said.

Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or joe.hotchkiss@augustachronicle.com.

 

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