Brian McGowan has spent his entire career doing one thing — working for government agencies to promote economic development. From advising cities in California and Bulgaria, to statewide responsibility when Arnold Schwarzenegger was California’s governor, to a national post in President Barack Obama’s administration, McGowan has learned what’s important when trying to woo new business to an area.
Now, as CEO of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, he’s become involved in a political hot potato over the financing of a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. If the proposed deal is approved, Invest Atlanta would issue $200 million in bonds to help construct the stadium. The bonds would be repaid by the city’s hotel-motel tax.
McGowan, 44, talks about that issue, as well as what he’s learned since becoming an intern in Palm Springs, California, two decades ago.
Q: Did something early in your life steer you toward government work?
A: We’re an Irish immigrant family who settled in the Bronx. My father’s parents came from Ireland and my mother came to the Bronx from Ireland in 1962, at a time when Ireland was very economically depressed. There’s a real appreciation for America.
Government always was something I was interested in. We actually joke that the family business is the NYPD. I have a lot of cousins who are cops and firemen.
I grew up as a big fan of John Kennedy, who also was from an Irish immigrant family. The two things the Irish like to talk about the most are the two things most people don’t like to talk about — religion and politics. I gravitated to government because I felt it was a way you could make a difference in people’s lives.
Q: After high school, your family moved to the Palm Springs area, which was a big change from growing up in New York and then New Jersey. What happened?
A: The first year I was in California, I was a laborer for a construction company. It was really hard work. It made me realize I needed to get a college degree.
While in college, I worked as an intern for the city of Palm Springs in the economic development department. I literally didn’t know what economic development was. I had to look it up and make phone calls to try to figure it out.
While I was an intern, I was thrown into the deep end. I was tasked with building a train station in Palm Springs — purchasing property from the private sector, hiring architects and designers, getting government grants and building the project. Between classes, I was literally on the phone with state and federal officials, with a congressman, trying to get easement rights from Amtrak for the station.
The internship was critical. At the end of it, they hired me. I’ve been in economic development now for my entire career. I believe in internships because it’s a practical look at what you might want to do. Sometimes, the lessons the professor is teaching are not exactly how it works in the real world.
Q: How does economic development work in the real world?
A: Economic development is that place between the private and public sectors. It’s about how to use government to facilitate job creation by the private sector. When you see families who are struggling, and how a job can help change a family’s trajectory, you really start to understand how impactful economic development can be on people’s lives.
I learned that you have to define yourself clearly — how your city fits into a global economy. When I worked for the city of Ontario, California, an hour east of Los Angeles, it was a logistics hub crisscrossed by runways, railways and freeways. We needed to tell our story.
When I worked for different cities in Bulgaria, which was transforming from communism to the free market, I learned that you have to figure out the DNA of a city and how it is unique. Then you have to tell that story to the world.
I visited a small tile manufacturer in Bulgaria, who struck me by how sophisticated he was. His customers were in Italy, Germany, England and France. He was truly an international businessman. In the U.S., we have to get our (smaller) companies to think internationally more. U.S. businesses need to become much better at exporting and engaging in global markets.
Also, I’ve learned over the years that a city really has to focus on its existing businesses. You’ll get a higher return on investment by making sure you’re keeping the businesses you have — and helping them grow — than by trying to attract new companies. Business retention and expansion should be the No. 1 priority for any economic development program.
Q: How do you do that?
A: We just recently launched a program in Atlanta. We’re systematically going out and visiting local businesses. Do you need extra space? Do you need help getting a permit or getting rid of a pothole in front of your business? Do you need workforce training, capital, help in exporting?
But no city can go it alone. Cities are part of regional economies. You have to leverage resources regionally and come up with a plan that supports innovation and entrepreneurship. You have to tie together the education system, training, incubator space for new high-tech companies, and you have to help commercialize technology to get those ideas into the marketplace.
California was a tough sell for attracting new companies from elsewhere because of its high costs. But, California has some of the most creative and innovative people on the planet. It has a very highly productive workforce, which is due in part to a very strong community college and four-year college system.
Low cost is not going to be the be-all and end-all any more. Atlanta is getting a lot of companies — innovative R&D companies — because of the tens of thousands of college and university students, plus the big city amenities that the young, creative class wants. Companies want a skilled workforce that can be maintained.
The K-12 education system here becomes a real issue for us when we’re trying to attract new business. That’s an issue that clearly has to be resolved.
Q: That’s one of the reasons many people believe there are more important priorities than spending public resources to help build a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. What’s more, the building of previous facilities — Turner Field and the Georgia Dome — did not boost the surrounding neighborhoods as had been anticipated. Take your best shot at convincing people the proposed deal makes sense.
A: Great cities have great amenities. The reason why the best and the brightest people all over the world move to cities is because of that.
I think it’s critical that the city keeps the economic activity that the Falcons bring. It would be a devastating loss. There’s going to be thousands of jobs created through the construction of the facility, which will be owned by taxpayers. You have an investor — team owner Arthur Blank — who’s willing to put up 80 percent of the cost, while we’re going to put in 20 percent, but we’re going to own it.
As for the neighborhood, the approach is going to be very different this time. We have a larger pot of money to work with — $30 million to start with (half from the Arthur Blank Foundation and the other half from Invest Atlanta).
We’re also going to be more comprehensive about what we do. There’s going to be housing, infrastructure, workforce development, human services, entrepreneurship. We’re going to approach it from a holistic perspective this time and make sure it’s done in a sustainable way.
McGowan’s remarks were edited for length and style.
WE GO BEYOND THE HEADLINES
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation with a local leader as part of our commitment to bring you insightful coverage of metro Atlanta’s business scene.