Whatever happened to the "New South"? You remember it, don't you? Until a few years ago, Georgia was the center of that wonderful emerging land of milk and honey.
Our jobless rate hit rock bottom. Per-capita income spiraled. New businesses couldn't move in fast enough. The higher education system expanded exponentially, and the convention and tourism industry boomed.
One of our governors, Jimmy Carter, graced the cover of Time magazine. The world saw him as the epitome of New South leadership. He was only one of a string of Georgia governors with wit, energy and salesmanship unmatched in the region. International business leaders focused on the Southeast - and especially on Georgia, its vibrant capital, growing ports and unsurpassed transportation system.
Traffic jams were seen as a sign of prosperity. We shrugged off water and air pollution as temporary conditions wrought by economic expansion. An end to significant racial discord appeared possible. Atlanta was a model. In quick succession, the capital of the New South hosted the Democratic National Convention, the Centennial Olympic Games and the Super Bowl. Non-English speakers were treated to grand doses of Southern hospitality. Who would have thought they would soon become a drag on our economy and culture?
Let's think hard for a moment. Did the New South ever really exist? Or did we just dream it?
To be truthful, though some of the New South was real, a lot of it was fantasy. In a sense, the New South, a phrase popularized by Atlanta newspaperman and civic booster Henry Grady, was a mystical destination just over the next hill. We imagined we were there, but we never fully arrived.
Our current problems began when the dreamers went away. We forgot what they did - and how they did it.
We forgot that visionary business leaders silenced racist demagogues in the 1960s. Racial conflict was bad, really bad, for business. In the South, only Georgia leaders seemed to comprehend that fairly simple notion. While Mississippi burned, Georgia prospered.
We forgot that Georgia's farsighted politicians put education improvements and expansion of our colleges and universities at the top of their to-do lists. "Research" was the catchword of the era. The Georgia Research Alliance was to put us on a par with North Carolina's Research Triangle. It didn't quite work out that way.
We forgot that, in the 1980s and 1990s, Georgia led the Southeast in jobs creation and increases in per-capita income. Now we are barely in the running.
So what happened?
At a recent Georgia Republican meeting, Ralph Reed, candidate for lieutenant governor, noted: "Florida created 176,000 new jobs last year, and (Georgia) created only 40,000." He blamed Peach State taxes on property and income. The culprit is far larger and more complex than those relatively meager levies.
While Georgia was telling DaimlerChrysler to take its jobs and shove them, look what Florida did:
The Sunshine State unveiled the Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County. The biotechnology center, expected to open next year, will create 6,400 jobs, generate $1.6 billion in additional income and boost the state's gross domestic product by $3.2 billion, according to Florida Trend magazine. Some 40,000 additional high-paying jobs are expected to result from industries clustering around Scripps.
While Georgia announced a new truck terminal employing 16 people south of Atlanta, North Carolina announced a dozen new or expanded high-tech industries.
North Carolina's Research Triangle, long an important hub for research and economic development, rose to No. 5 among life-sciences research centers in the country. Only Boston, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco Bay ranked ahead of it. Merck, GE and other industries announced major startups and expansions. Back in Georgia, a judicial appeal was considered on whether to warn students and parents about textbooks that included evolution.
Meanwhile, another Southern state, Virginia, turned to its educational institutions to improve its wobbly economy. In addition, Gov. Mark Warner focused on efforts to stem job losses from textile factory closings in southern Virginia. He created one-stop job-assistance storefronts in depressed towns across the region. Besides helping the jobless with unemployment benefits, the storefronts furnish specialized training and even help workers without a high school diploma to earn a G.E.D. within three months.
Alabama and South Carolina also have delivered dynamic economic reports, coming at a time when the national economy struggles with increasing foreign competition.
There's no doubt. The old go-go enthusiasm of the New South has diminished in Georgia. The reasons for that decline - ranging from the loss of major financial institutions to crises in air transportation and communications - are too complex to dissect here. However, several neighbors, showing renewed exuberance, have unveiled innovative examples of how we might get rolling again. We should take notice.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail email@example.com. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.