Some metro Atlanta suburbs have suddenly found themselves at a disadvantage in competing for hot corporate relocations.
A parade of big employers have looked elsewhere of late. Reasons vary, but one common thread is the lack of major public transit in places like Cobb, Gwinnett and parts of north Fulton.
NCR, Worldpay, State Farm, athenahealth and PulteGroup all announced moves that will put their headquarters or regional hubs close to significant mass transit and, in most cases, MARTA rail stations.
Mercedes-Benz, which is moving its U.S. headquarters from New Jersey to metro Atlanta, is expected to pick a site in Sandy Springs but wants to be close to MARTA as well as interstates.
Combined, the companies account for nearly 15,000 promised jobs, many expected to include high salaries.
The suburbs are far from dead, as proven by the Atlanta Braves’ planned move to Cobb.
But some suburban leaders are contemplating how to regain momentum in attracting and keeping corporate jobs. Among the decisions they face: Is it worth spending hundreds of millions of dollars or more on mass transit to boost community appeal?
“That is one of the top questions that’s got to be answered,” Cobb chairman Tim Lee said.
He predicted Cobb “will be sliding backward in the economic development arena” if transportation alternatives aren’t pursued. “We as a government need to move quicker in response to the trends.”
Lee said leaders don’t yet know exactly what transportation options to pursue, but he said he thinks costs will keep the county from ever getting MARTA-like rail.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported that Lee has contemplated asking voters to approve a property tax increase to help fund a $500 million bus system down Cobb Parkway. That idea has gotten pushback from some Cobb residents.
‘Robust discussion’ expected
In Gwinnett, county chairman Charlotte Nash wrote in an email that she anticipates “a robust discussion in Gwinnett about existing transportation options and what improvements and additions we should consider.”
As for heavy rail, she wrote, “I learned a long time ago to never say never but we are not focused on heavy rail as an option currently.”
Cobb and Gwinnett both have bus systems, but as Nash said, “we know that transportation needs are not static.”
MARTA is expanding in Clayton County after voters last year approved paying a 1 percent sales tax to join the system. But voters in Gwinnett repeatedly have shot down past campaigns for MARTA.
Extending MARTA just a mile into Gwinnett could cost $140 million, according to a 2012 estimate. And that doesn’t include operating costs.
Lance Lamberton, who has led fights against past tax increases in Cobb as chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, questions whether the costs of big public transit projects are worth the benefits to spread-out suburbs.
Georgia’s top elected officials are wrestling with how to come up with a politically feasible way to pay for more road and transit projects. An exclusive poll for the AJC recently found Georgians overwhelmingly support greater access to buses and trains, though they don’t want to pay for it with a tax increase.
The trend of recent corporate relocations has created a new pressure point. Some, like Mercedes, involve suburban sites outside the Perimeter but close to MARTA.
For instance, State Farm plans to shift thousands of area employees — including many now in north Fulton’s Johns Creek — to a new complex physically connected to the Dunwoody MARTA station near Perimeter Mall.
Other companies are choosing intown Atlanta sites. NCR is moving its headquarters from Gwinnett’s Duluth to Midtown Atlanta.
PulteGroup, one of the nation’s biggest home builders, left suburban Detroit to locate in Buckhead.
“When selecting a specific site within Atlanta, commute times to the office and the airport were high among the search criteria,” PulteGroup vice president Jim Zeumer wrote in an email, “which is why we selected a building immediately adjacent to a MARTA station.”
Worker access cited
Stephen Cannon, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, said he wants his workers to have the easiest access to the company’s planned $93 million headquarters, whether they’re suburbanites in Alpharetta or millennials who want to ride a train from Midtown.
Such moves show a broader trend underway, said Chuck Warbington, who leads the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District, a Norcross-area organization.
“If we’re going after tech jobs, creative-type jobs, higher-paying office jobs, we’ve got to have transit to attract those jobs in the future,” he said.
Many companies have only recently become more focused on MARTA, said Ken Ashley, an executive director in Atlanta for real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.
“Five or 10 years ago, we saw corporate site selection groups look at MARTA just as a pro forma check the box,” Ashley said. “Today, mass transit is a real and important part of the decision making process.”
“If Atlanta and Georgia are going to continue to be competitive on the global stage, this is an issue we have to take seriously,” he said.
Metro Atlanta’s suburbs still attract jobs, even in areas not very close to rail. General Moters, Fiserv and Verizon Wireless have all announced major suburban moves.
For many, office space in a central business district is prohibitively expensive. Others simply like more secluded settings, or their businesses serve a suburban customer base. Suburban schools and housing are a drawing card as well.
In the case of NCR, the company is seeking to have the best of both worlds, Ashley said. While moving its headquarters to a mammoth Midtown campus, it also plans a suburban complex.
Then there’s the Atlanta Braves’ recent decision to move from near downtown to a site near Cobb’s Cumberland Mall, where there is no nearby MARTA rail. Officials are mapping out ways to handle the expected rush of fans.
Georgia’s two biggest corporate titans, Home Depot and UPS, remain in the suburbs.
“It has not been a deterrent for us in any way as far as recruiting or retaining employees,” UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said. For years, the company has helped employees by funding shuttle bus service from its primary headquarters buildings in Sandy Springs to the closest rail station.
Part of what’s driving some employers toward public transit is a shift in the kinds of workers they want.
“Companies like NCR are absolutely wed to attracting and retaining young people,” said Abe Schear, who works with developers and corporations as a real estate attorney for the Arnall Golden Gregory law firm.
Millennials, young folks just entering adulthood up to their early 30s, will make up about half of the nation’s workforce by 2020, according to a workplace report by the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina.
This generation is tech savvy, well-educated, attracted to city life and drawn to using transit versus commuting by car.
Still, employers who move toward public transit will lengthen commutes for some employees.
Josh Linder, a Dunwoody resident who runs NCR’s predictive services group, said many colleagues who live in the suburbs are likely to be frustrated by the move.
“The biggest bugaboo is going to be the T-word. There is no real mass transit.”
— Staff writer Arielle Kass contributed to this report