Robert J. Shaw, Development Authority of Fulton County
Robert J. Shaw, Development Authority of Fulton County

Recent discussions on revitalizing Sandy Springs’ downtown district have sharply focused debate over the city’s business and economic development initiatives. Most residents see the effort positively, even if they disagree on the options.

However, properly designing a community economic development program is a challenge for any local government. Small downtowns struggle with broadening their business appeal, while larger metropolitan areas face sprawl and need more tightly regulated development. Interestingly, the city of Sandy Springs faces both challenges as it leads an effort to transform a small downtown within a larger metropolitan context.

Of course, many homeowners wonder why governments even need a business development strategy. After all, don’t businesses generate congestion, cut-through traffic, sprawl, dense development and other problems?

Actually, an effective program targeting the right kinds of businesses delivers real quality of life enhancements. The obvious benefit is lower residential taxes. With homestead exemptions and other homeowner incentives, residential taxes typically provide about 80 to 90 cents of revenue for each dollar of government service consumed.

Businesses, meanwhile, usually return about $1.15 to $1.25 in tax revenue for every service dollar expended. Thus, unless a community maintains a healthy business climate, the tax burden slowly, but inevitably, shifts toward homeowners, raising millage rates and other government service costs.

Also, better job prospects close to home mean shorter commutes. In metro Atlanta, the average daily commute well exceeds 30 minutes each way. The further from home you work, the longer your commute.

A properly attuned business development program targets employers needing the community’s existing jobs skills. As quality jobs settle close to home, congestion produced by long commutes is reduced.

Another benefit of a healthy economic environment is higher overall property values. When demand for business space increases, so does demand for residential real estate. People prefer living close to work, so adjacent home sales remain brisk and residential real estate values hold steady or increase.

The flip side of a declining business environment is shrinking residential values. Even after the recent market adjustment shifted most house values downward, a home often remains a family’s greatest single source of wealth. So, a properly designed business development strategy is in each homeowner’s long-term interest since it helps prop up home prices.

Our recent downturn has given many metro communities a taste of what once thriving Rust Belt communities have dealt with for decades: diminished job opportunities, declining property values, mounting foreclosures, the inability to sell a home at any price, the departure of young families, reduced local services and a deteriorating quality of life.

In Sandy Springs, the impact has been less severe, but still significant. The city is taking a wise course in focusing on its commercial areas. Relying on a world-renowned group like Goody Clancy is a solid first step. Getting maximum community input is another strong positive, though it is impossible to develop a plan that delights everyone.

In the end, government doesn’t create jobs, businesses or economic growth. However, smart local governments create an environment where the right kinds of businesses flourish.

Sandy Springs resident Bob Shaw chairs the Development Authority of Fulton County. The authority works with other state and local development organizations and area chambers of commerce to expand jobs, business opportunities and economic development in Fulton County.