GeorgiaForward Making Strides to Unify the State with a Common Vision

September 18,2012


Consider all the many ways Georgia can be carved up. We have 159 counties and as many as 500 cities and towns. We have got metro Atlanta, 13 other significant metro areas and the rural parts of the state. We have the two Georgias — metro Atlanta and the rest of the state. We have 12 metro planning districts (think TSPLOST).

But it takes a special skill to figure how we can be one Georgia.

That was just what Georgia Forward, an organization of civic, government, business, academic and non-profit leaders, tried to visualize at its third annual conference this week in Athens, Ga.

Here is the thesis. As long as we are a divided state with multiple and contradictory visions for Georgia we will never reach our potential.

So how can Georgia build consensus towards a cohesive and inspirational vision for our state? Georgia Forward added another twist this year. How can Georgia in 20 years become a national model for prosperity in every corner of the state?

GeorgiaForward made a valiant attempt to answer those questions over two days of meetings where several issues critical to our prosperity were explored — health, transportation, rural development, thriving cities as well as hunger and poverty.

About 240 leaders attended the two-day forum from Sept. 12 to 13 — sharing their thoughts of how Georgia can become a more unified state.

At the end of the conference, attendees were asked what should be the state’s priorities.

Of 16 different choices, participants settled on six issues that should take priority. In descending order, they were:

1. Create new transportation connections in Georgia, esp. between regional hubs — including highways and rail networks;

2. 2. Find ways of connecting all parts of Georgia to broadband through incentives to until the gap is closed for all Georgians;

3. Create a statewide “quality communities” initiative based on a quality of life vision by creating partnerships with government, businesses and nonprofits;

4. Create a strategy and set of programs for retaining our graduates through tax credits, incentives and a welcoming culture;

5. Create a “collaboration pyramid” in Georgia where grassroots conversations between business, community and local government leaders drive the vision among the different regions throughout Georgia and at the state level; and

6. Create a statewide Pre-school to college education initiative by providing access to high-quality early education and creating a higher education curriculum that is aligned with business needs.

The group also worked on a “vision statement” for the whole state (see draft document below with additional notes based on breakout discussions).

Given the time and energy leaders were willing to spend at the GeorgiaForward forum, it is clear there is a hunger to build bridges between various parts of the state for the greater good.

Inevitably, the forum invites comparisons to North Carolina, which has had a similar statewide envisioning process for decades. Not coincidentally, today North Carolina is enjoying the enviable reputation as being perhaps the most successful state in the Southeast if not the nation — a position Georgia used to enjoy.

GeorgiaForward emerged out of a concern that because of a fractured relationship between different parts of the state, Georgia’s economic vitality was slipping backwards as other competing states were stepping into the spotlight.

“The idea of GeorgiaForward came out of a series of meetings five years ago,” said A.J. Robinson, chair of the GeorgiaForward board who also is president of Central Atlanta Progress. “Everybody felt we could do a better job in our state building a common vision for all.”

Although there has been widespread grassroots support for GeorgiaForward, it has not yet attracted the kind of financial support it needs to continue its valuable work.

“We are making slow and steady progress,” Robinson said. “The quality of this forum and the quality of the dialogue is the best yet.”

Later Robinson added: “We could do so much more with a little more resources and a little more help.”

For now, GeorgiaForward is basically a one man operation — Amir Farokhi, the organization’s executive director. In addition to the annual forum, GeorgiaForward is working on several other initiatives throughout the year.

It would seem that all sorts of people, companies, philanthropies and institutions should be supporting an effort that could be key to our state’s economic future and our ability to meld the great divide between all the various Georgias that have held us back.

Certainly it’s worth all of us doing what we can to propel GeorgiaForward.