Georgia needs a win - badly

Georgia can't afford to lose Kia. After a long string of setbacks, the Peach State desperately wants a new marquee industry. Georgia needs to be known again as a winner.

Kia, the giant Korean auto manufacturer, is expected to announce next week whether it's going to build an assembly plant near LaGrange. No one knows for sure how much Georgia's government is offering Kia. Gov. Sonny Perdue is reportedly proposing $250 million in incentives. That sum is probably just the tip of the cash vault.

At this writing, Mississippi also is in hot pursuit of Kia.

Raising the stakes considerably, Mississippi has put $1 billion worth of incentives on the table. The bundle for Kia includes more than $200 million federal funds earmarked to help the Magnolia State recover from Hurricane Katrina. Besides, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has emerged from the Katrina disaster as a go-getter in trying to rebuild.

Nevertheless, Georgia appears a good bet to secure Kia. In addition to taxpayer incentives, Georgia's assets include an unmatched interstate highway system, a growing pool of idle but willing workers and easy access to scores of parts makers, most of which are in Alabama.

Thanks to decisions made decades ago by Gov. Ernie Vandiver and Highway Board member Bill Trotter, Interstate 85 was routed through LaGrange and is now a major selling point for Kia.

Kia's site-selection team is well aware that habitual runner-up Perdue is in a weak negotiating position and, therefore, ready to agree to almost anything. We wish the governor luck. We hope he does not run into another wall.

Even if Georgia lands Kia with its 2,500 workers, we still have a way to go. The announced closings of the GM and Ford plants in Atlanta will cost the state more than 5,000 high-paying automotive jobs.

How did we come to this?

For a generation, Georgia was the fastest-developing state in the Deep South. Our transportation network plus Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport served as a magnet for Fortune 500 companies.

Atlanta became an internationally recognized service center. Georgia hosted more payroll-rich military installations than just about any other state. Then the wheels started to fall off.

You can blame the politicians, but the real culprits are us voters who chose such a sorry lot.

First, Atlanta began to lose its dominance as a financial center. The Georgia Legislature repeatedly refused to keep up with Florida and North Carolina lawmakers in facilitating bank expansions. As a result, several big banks moved. North Carolina replaced Georgia in financial services and soon became a jobs-generating international banking capital.

Then, one by one, our power politicians exited. In Washington, Sen. Sam Nunn and House Speaker Newt Gingrich departed, and so did their ability to attract and keep federal installations.

In Georgia, Republican Sonny Perdue ended the Democratic dynasty, which took credit for energizing Georgia's economic development and attracting a series of main public events (the Centennial Olympic Games, Super Bowl XXXIII and the Democratic National Convention).

Shortly after Perdue was sworn in, bad karma set in. DaimlerChrysler withdrew a proposal to build a plant near Savannah after Perdue demanded a specific written commitment for future plant expansion. The German-American automaker chose South Carolina as its plant site.

Dominoes continued to topple. Brown & Williamson moved out. Merck, General Electric and WestPoint Stevens went south. Winn-Dixie laid off hordes. Mergers gobbled up Georgia-Pacific and Scientific-Atlanta. Delta bankrupted. Now, AT&T is about to acquire BellSouth.

Nearly every section of Georgia has lost significant industries and military installations. Invitations to the promoters of giant public events to return to Georgia are invariably spurned. Bad weather, high crime rates and traffic congestion are the main excuses.

According to government figures, Georgia is experiencing the nation's biggest increase in unemployment. We are tied with hurricane-ruined Louisiana for having the most folks out of work.

Perdue has vowed to go to San Antonio to try to entice Ma Bell to relocate to Atlanta. If we cannot use breathtaking cash offers to snag a race-car museum or another Super Bowl, seducing a high-tech telecom headquarters to leave Texas seems highly improbable.

To say Georgia faces a crisis may be premature, unless of course you're among the tens of thousands left jobless even as our population continues to soar.

A lack of smart leadership with a clear vision is increasingly apparent. Admittedly, several economic reversals could not be averted at the state level. Yet a quicker and more aggressive state government - one not completely beholden to old industries and reactionary interests -could have made up for lost ground by thinking more and trying harder.

P.S.: One knows Georgia is at a crossroads when a group of experienced political old-timers recently convened to inspect the roster of likely winning Republican candidates in the upcoming elections. They decided Ralph Reed may be the quality of the lot.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.