Angelou Economics, the consulting firm contracted by DeKalb County to lead the development of its first economic strategic plan, has released its first deliverable to the public. This DeKalb County Market Assessment is the first deliverable in the Baseline Analysis phase (Phase 2 in a 4-phase project plan) and provides detailed information on DeKalb County’s Quality of Life, Workforce and Education, Business Climate and Infrastructure factors. It also provides a SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats – Analysis for the County overall, as well as for each of the four factors explored in detail. This report is expected to be followed up this month with a second Baseline Analysis Report, a Phase 3 Target Industry Analysis in April and a Phase 4 Strategic Plan and Implementation Matrix in June.
In developing the County’s strategic plan, Angelou Economics’ strategy “is to make DeKalb County the most business-friendly county in the Atlanta MSA, and to designate strong employment centers throughout the county that need to be protected as part of a cohesive long-term development plan.” The goal will be to capitalize on the County’s strengths and external opportunities, while working to overcome and/or mitigate its weaknesses and threats.
The study acknowledges that the first step in developing a strategic plan for DeKalb County is to gain a detailed understanding of the issues facing the county’s market area. As a result, this Market Assessment studied DeKalb County against three comparison benchmark counties – Cobb County, Gwinnett County, and Prince George’s County in Maryland. The analysis also often included comparisons to Atlanta and the state overall.
As expected, DeKalb County is facing several significant obstacles to development. One of the most severe issues that the county has experienced a significant decrease in the unincorporated tax digest; the County has lost approximately 50% of its unincorporated tax digest in the last six (6) years, primarily due to the incorporation of new cities in the wealthier, northern communities; the annexation of other successful areas of the County by cities; decreasing property values and housing foreclosures. This is putting an increasingly heavy tax burden on lower tax brackets. The drastic decline of tax revenues prevents the County from reinvesting in roads and aging infrastructure.
The County’s political problems in the area of financial oversight and governance are also negatively impacting economic development. County staff has also become demoralized.
Quality of Life
DeKalb County has experienced slow population growth since 1990, and has the lowest growth rates of all the benchmarks to which it is compared, as well as in comparison to the state of Georgia. This growth rate indicates that people may be leaving DeKalb to move elsewhere. The County’s diversity has been increasing, as DeKalb has become a haven for refugees. The $48,671 median income is comparable to the state median income, but is lower than the benchmark counties and Atlanta; additionally, the distribution of income is shifted towards lower incomes, most of which are under $50,000. However, the cost of living is lower than Atlanta and Prince George’s County, and is comparable to the cost of living in both Cobb and Gwinnett. Housing prices are lower than in benchmark counties, and commute times for DeKalb residents are favorable.
However, DeKalb does suffer from dramatically higher violent and property crime rates, as well as the highest poverty rate of all benchmark counties. One piece of good news is that violent crime incidents have declined 27% since 2008.
Workforce and Education
Workers in DeKalb County are younger than U.S. workers on average, and the population of young professionals is largely remaining stable. The county boasts a mobile workforce, with only 1/3 of DeKalb workers living within the county’s limits. The average weekly wage rate is higher than all benchmarks but Cobb County, but wage growth in DeKalb County is lower than wage growth in Atlanta, Georgia and the U.S. overall. This low wage growth could pose a threat to the future standard of living in the County. Over 60% of the workforce in DeKalb is employed in one of 4 main industry sectors: Education & Health Services, Retail, Professional & Business Services and Leisure & Hospitality. These four sectors require a diverse range of education and skill sets.
DeKalb County is the only county of the benchmark counties, Atlanta and Georgia to experience negative employment growth in the last 10 years, with a 2% decline in growth. However, the employment rate has made a comeback since 2010 along with all of the other benchmarks studied.
In the area of education, the percentage of DeKalb residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher (38%) exceeds Gwinnett, Prince George’s County, Atlanta, Georgia and the U.S. That said, it appears that educated DeKalb residents are leaving the county in pursuit of better opportunities in other places. Furthermore, the perception of the quality of education provided by DeKalb public schools is low, and it appears that the county should invest in measures to ensure that DeKalb students are more college ready upon graduation. On a positive note, DeKalb County ranks second among Georgia counties in R&D expenditures and per capita R&D dollars.
The city is struggling with the loss of 50% of its tax digest in the last six years as a result of city incorporations and related factors. These city incorporations have also shifted the tax burden to an increasingly poor demographic of the population. This has resulted in higher than average government costs per capita. Furthermore, the County lags behind Atlanta in the growth of business establishments. Many of the problems associated with these declining tax revenues are expected to improve automatically with time if the county enhances its business climate.
DeKalb does have a good mix of small, medium and large businesses, and performs well in patent activity, although entrepreneurs and small businesses would benefit from increased support. Georgia’s tax climate is perceived as business friendly, and DeKalb’s tax rates are competitive with the benchmark counties studied. There is also potential for venture capital in DeKalb County within Metro Atlanta. The County would benefit from using innovative regional resources as a model to help entrepreneurs, and would greatly benefit from engaging community business leaders to a greater extent than they currently do.
DeKalb County does have a competitive edge in natural gas and electricity rates compared to other benchmarks. However, growth in household units has not kept pace with benchmark counties, Atlanta and the state since 1990, particularly losing ground from 1980-2000. DeKalb also has the highest percentage of rental units among the benchmark areas at 40%, and the highest increase in vacant houses at 76%. The County does possess certain county-owned properties that could be leveraged and repositioned to impact both the commercial and residential markets.
Future deliverables will outline specific action steps that DeKalb County can take in order to position itself as a business-friendly county encouraging economic development.
To view the full DeKalb County Market Assessment, click HERE.