Opinion Columns & Blogs

The urban vs. rural divide

The Georgia Legislature is going to have to make some tough decisions in the new year. Already a committee that studies the rural divide has proposed a new tax on cellphones, Internet services, and possibly even streaming services like Netflix to pay for rural Internet infrastructure. I have mixed feelings about people who live in cities being forced to pay taxes to put Internet in for the 16 percent of Georgians who live in rural areas.

One of the real issues the committee and Legislature are trying to solve is how to attract businesses to parts of Georgia other than Atlanta. As businesses move to Macon, Savannah, Valdosta, Warner Robins, etc., their employees go off looking for cheaper places to live further into the countryside. They move into places like Wilkinson County, Taylor County, etc., where Internet service is spotty. Members of the Legislature are presupposing that if the state builds out the infrastructure it might attract others to go there.

But the issues are bigger than just Internet. Right now, much of the state’s economic development engine centers around Atlanta and its suburbs while corporations like Delta stifle any and all aviation competition. That aviation competition, however, is a critical component to bringing in more jobs outside of Atlanta. There have been efforts in the past to upgrade the airports in Paulding County and Lawrenceville, but Delta mobilized efforts to kill those upgrades in the same way it and the Atlanta Airport have been hampering JetBlue’s ability to move into the Atlanta market.

The Interstate-85 and Interstate-75 corridors toward Charlotte and Chattanooga are developing rather organically on their own and those commercial infrastructures are becoming congested. It seems it would make the most sense to focus on the I-75 corridor and I-16 corridor with Middle Georgia as a hub. That would suggest the state should make it a priority to expand the Middle Georgia Regional Airport given its location. It could offload cargo capacity from Atlanta and take advantage of the rail and road infrastructure. With the new Amazon distribution facility in Middle Georgia, an expanded runway makes loads of sense.

Likewise, with the expansion of the I-75/I-16 exchange and inland port plans, the Legislature should be considering ways to attract big business besides just Internet access. The dirty little secret, though, is that most of these legislative plans really focus on North Georgia. Members of the Legislature derisively refer to the Hall County mafia, by which they mean the lt. governor, governor, and speaker of the house, who all are focused on bringing Internet and infrastructure development to North Georgia. Several prominent members of the Legislature tell me they are not really optimistic that middle and south Georgia are integral components to any rural expansion. They think the leadership in the state is only focused north of Interstate-20.

Given how much time the governor and lt. governor have spent south of I-20, I suspect that is more cynicism than reality, but the perception exists. Showing parts south of I-20 that they are serious about moving businesses outside the Atlanta metropolitan area would be helpful, particularly in getting those middle and south Georgia politicians on-board potential tax increases.

One way or another, something has to give. Atlanta has reached runway and hotel capacity. If Amazon comes it, it will further overwhelm the already overwhelmed metropolitan infrastructure. As we head to the new year, the Legislature should seriously start thinking about expanding Middle Georgia’s runway capacity and incentivize corporate development south of I-20.

Erick Erickson is a Fox News contributor and radio talk show host in Atlanta.