Economic development in Savannah — are we lagging?

Business professor Russ Wigh has been writing columns every other week for the Exchange in the Savannah Morning News for over two years. His final column came out last week: Same song, second verse for Savannah’s economic development

I’ve enjoyed Wigh’s work but have never met him. Wigh and I are in general agreement on many things, but I think I have a different sense of Savannah’s scale. A 2010 column in which he called for “displaced neighborhoods” along Derenne Avenue is a case in point.

I generally agree with the thrust of Wigh’s final column, which calls for Savannah to have a more diverse economy and to do a better job of recruiting skilled and educated outsiders.

But I found Wigh’s column overly pessimistic on several points. First I should note a certain tone that suggests the author thought his biweekly columns would have a major impact on discourse in the city. I’ve been writing three columns a week for many years and I can assure you all that generally the best a columnist can hope for is to effect a kind of gentle turning — a look or even a glance in a new direction that eventually has some sort of meaningful impact.

Here’s a passage from Wigh’s column:

This city needs an influx of new skilled people so that we have a better shot at major employers, can create more jobs for those without them and have an honest chance of cutting the poverty rate significantly.

Instead we have local politicians forever demanding jobs for the poor. It isn’t happening, and it isn’t going to happen. Instead they should be minding the recommendations of SEDA’s Stanford Research Institute report, and they should be beating the drums for growth.

Are politicians “forever demanding jobs for the poor”? That characterization is certainly not how I hear the public discourse. Just before that passage, Wigh bemoans our high rate of unemployment, but that’s not simply a local issue. The entire state and much of the country has high unemployment. I agree that we should not sugarcoat the numbers — and for several years before, during, and after the recession I routinely implored local leaders to act with more urgency as the economy collapsed.

But things are doing better, much better — and that’s worth acknowledging.

I agree with Wigh that SEDA and other organizations need clear strategies and ambitious visions like those outlined in the Stanford Research Institute report, which Wigh detailed in a fall 2012 column.

Oddly, Wigh’s final column last week talks about “minimal population growth.” The region has been growing steadily, however — faster than many American metro areas.

Wigh also notes that Savannah “lags its peers” and elsewhere suggests that we’re dropping farther behind Charleston.

But who are Savannah’s peers?

The Savannah metro area has about 365,000 people. I’m going to take a minor risk and assume that Wikipedia’s list of metro areas by population contains no significant errors. The five metros just ahead of us and just behind us in terms of population are Tallahassee, Fayetteville, Trenton, Huntington-Ashland, Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, Eugene, Ann Arbor, Rockford, Ocala, and Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island.

The Charleston metro area has about 700,000 people — almost twice as many as Savannah. Jacksonville has about 1.4 million. New Orleans has about 1.25 million. Even small Asheville has more people than we do — about 435,000.

That list also includes data about population growth from 2010 to 2012. The Savannah metro area is in the upper echelon.

Now, I’d love to see more of that population growth within the city limits of Savannah. And I’d love to see renewed and redoubled efforts to lure mobile young Americans with skills and education — and to give college graduates more reason to stay here.

But the U.S. economy is still slowly recovering from the worst recession since World War II. The housing bust and financial crisis were simply devastating. I’m actually surprised that Savannah’s economy is recovering as fast as it is.