Brian McGowan | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Piloting Atlanta’s Economic Development Initiatives
By Karen Rosen
From the 29th floor of the Georgia-Pacific Center, Brian McGowan takes guests on what he calls the “helicopter tour” of Atlanta.
The Invest Atlanta offices are on the interior, leaving a 360-degree view of the city from the airport and Turner Field to Centennial Olympic Park and the World of Coke, Buckhead and Ponce City Market.
“We designed this office space to really showcase Atlanta as a global city,” says McGowan, the President/CEO of Invest Atlanta, the economic development arm of the City of Atlanta. “Our competition is not New Orleans, Memphis, Charlotte and Miami. Our competition is Chicago, New York, London, Dubai and Guangzhou.”
McGowan markets and tells the story of Atlanta domestically and internationally to attract investment, create jobs, revitalize neighborhoods and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, a very strong Fortune 500 presence, Georgia’s business-friendly environment and a tradition of innovation help bring in and retain businesses.
“I always remind people that Georgia, thanks to the work of Gov. Nathan Deal and the legislature, is considered the No. 1 state in the United States to do business in,” McGowan says.
Last November, Site Selection magazine awarded Georgia its top ranking among U.S. states for business climate.
McGowan says Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta City Council are also working to attract jobs and make sure that the city is a stable place to invest “so all the stars and planets are aligned for a resurgence of Atlanta’s economy,” he says.
McGowan emphasizes that the city, the surrounding counties and the state are “all in this together.”
When a big plant moves to any location in Georgia, “Atlanta’s going to benefit from that,” he says. “The mayor’s working hard on expanding the port in Savannah because Atlanta’s going to benefit from it. That’s because Atlanta is the business capital of the southeastern United States. This is where the law firms are, the accounting firms and the universities.”
McGowan says most people outside of Georgia don’t differentiate between Atlanta and neighboring counties such as Cobb and DeKalb. “It’s all seen as one,” he says. “At the end of the day, we need to rise above that intra-regional competition and find ways to work together as a region. Because that’s the only way we’re going to compete globally.”
When McGowan left the Obama administration 2½ years ago to come to Atlanta, he says he saw no construction cranes moving around the city. “Now it’s hard to drive five blocks without seeing a construction crane,” McGowan says. From the McMillan project in Buckhead to the Emory Proton Therapy Center in midtown and the Georgia State law school and dorms, his job is to keep those cranes turning.
“It’s exciting,” McGowan says. “The last six months it’s as if somebody just flipped the switch on. Things were kind of quiet and slow and all a sudden there was just a tremendous amount of activity.”
Invest Atlanta has brought in homebuilder Pulte Group’s corporate headquarters, baby clothes company Carter’s and Athena Health Care System’s IT, research and development functions. An AT&T Foundry business incubator opened in Buckhead. Mailchip and Cardlytics, two technology-based companies that started in Atlanta, have expanded into Ponce City Market.
The city also recently opened the $1 billion international airport terminal, announced the $1 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium project and got the streetcar project underway. Coca-Cola is moving 2,200 jobs from outside the Perimeter back to downtown Atlanta.
McGowan credits a healthier global economic situation for the activity, but also says that in the last four years Atlanta worked to “make sure that when the economy turned we were prepared to attract those kinds of investments.”
One of the first things McGowan did when he came on board was change the name of the organization from the Atlanta Development Authority to Invest Atlanta. The name change reflected the change in emphasis from primarily community development to becoming a globally competitive economic development organization.
The mayor is the chair of Invest Atlanta and it is governed by a nine-member board of directors.
“They said, ‘We have to retrench, we have to modernize Atlanta’s approach to economic development,’” McGowan says. “We’re going to have to go out and fight for it.’”
In McGowan, Atlanta found a seasoned economic developer with a competitive streak .
Born in the Bronx and raised in New Jersey, McGowan moved with his family to California when he was 18. He was interested in government and pursued a degree in political science from the University of California, Riverside. McGowan also earned a Master’s degree in Politics, Economics and Business from the Claremont Graduate University, where he is completing his PhD in American Politics and Policy as the Michael and Mary Johnston Fellow.
McGowan got his first taste of economic development as an intern with the city of Palm Springs, Calif. “As a matter of fact, I probably made some phone calls and asked people what economic development was,” he says, noting that in the early 90s, “you couldn’t Google.”
He learned that economic developers were the liaisons between government and the private sector, and that suited him just fine.
After the internship, McGowan was hired as an economic development specialist. His job was to diversify and bring other kinds of businesses to an area that thrived on tourism. McGowan also concentrated on business retention and expansion.
He then spent six years working for the booming city of Ontario, Calif., an industrial city with a growing airport.
McGowan led a number of trade missions to China and Mexico and created a well-respected model. It focused on results and involved large delegations of small- and medium-sized businesses instead of small delegations of CEOs of bigger companies.
“If it made sense for one of our companies to purchase a part from a Chinese manufacturer, that would help it become more competitive, more efficient, and more profitable with the end result of creating jobs.”
While working for the city of Ontario, McGowan met a group of Bulgarian government officials who were visiting a local university. They forged a long-term relationship.
For the next few years, McGowan traveled to Bulgaria to help mayors and local government officials create economic development programs as the country transitioned from Communist to free market.
“Sometimes when you get pulled out of your job to go see what another city is dealing with, it makes you better at your job when you go back and do it,” McGowan says. “My experience in Bulgaria really opened my eyes up on the international trade front.”
He saw that small Bulgarian manufacturers were better at taking advantage of international markets than comparable companies in California.
“As I traveled to places like Bulgaria and China, I would be in elevators with Germans and Italians and didn’t hear a lot of American accents,” McGowan said, “so that’s when we said, ‘We need to really help our companies recognize opportunities in other countries. America is a huge market in and of itself. If we want our companies to be truly competitive, they have to be international.’”
McGowan next did a short stint the County of San Bernardino, which is larger than nine states. He was the agency administrator overseeing 300 employees in the areas of housing and community development, workforce development, redevelopment and economic development.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor of California, had heard about McGowan’s trade mission model, which had was featured in The New York Times. He called and asked him to help organize a trip to China.
Schwarzenegger then invited McGowan to join his administration as deputy secretary for economic development and commerce in the Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency and take the lead on economic development issues at the state level.
“Of course I said, ‘Yes,’” McGowan says, “because you don’t say no to Arnold.”
He had the executive power of the governor to pull agencies together and focus on results. He also helped create an international trade strategy.
McGowan is proudest of creating the California iHub, which spurred regions to focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. It also encouraged collaboration between the public and private sectors.
“What ended up happening was these local coalitions created their own tax incentives, their own programs and their own incubators,” McGowan said.
State certification enabled many of them to apply for federal grants.
Though he enjoyed his work, McGowan’s life changed when he listened to President Obama’s inauguration speech. He was so inspired by the message about economic development that he sought a position at the federal level.
McGowan passed out his resume to anyone he thought had contacts in Washington. After a few months, he got a call inviting him to interview with Gary Locke, the Secretary of Commerce.
McGowan became U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce and chief operating officer for the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.
He was instrumental in establishing the i6 challenge, which was based on the iHub program, and Strong Cities,Strong Communities, a White House effort to help struggling urban areas.
He was also detailed to the White House in 2010 to become an economic advisor to the president on the BP oil spill. His job was to help communities along the Gulf of Mexico mitigate the short-term impacts of the spill.
“I had the authority to reach into any federal agency and apply those resources in that community,” McGowan says.
He worked closely with Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, to develop a report on the economic and eco-system restoration following the spill.
McGowan and some colleagues also created a new program called SelectUSA, which helps foreign investors navigate the U.S. entry points.
Though McGowan says he was “happily in the Obama administration and doing some very interesting and fun stuff there,” the long hours in a stressful environment took him away from his wife and five children.
He put the word out that he was considering a new challenge and found out about the national search to fill the Atlanta position. McGowan says he was sold by his interview with Reed. They shared the same vision for creating jobs in Atlanta, which had been hit hard by the recession.
“If a big CEO or start-up entrepreneur is thinking, ‘Where do I want to locate? Where do I want to be to grow my business?’ The mayor wants me involved in those conversations.,” McGowan says.
Invest Atlanta has 46 employees while Atlanta Beltline, Inc., a subcomponent entity of Invest Atlanta, has 24.
Invest Atlanta leverages the benefits of bond financing, revolving loan funds, housing financing, tax increment financing (TIF) and tax credits.
McGowan also launched Startup Atlanta, a concept similar to iHub in California, to focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Atlanta does innovation entrepreneurship better than most cities in the United States, but it’s almost like a best-kept secret,” he said, citing Coca-Cola, Delta, Home Depot, Spanx and Ted Turner’s enterprises. “This is a city that was built on that. And I think it’s an example nationally of the private sector working with the public sector to make things happen.”
He said an entrepreneur with an idea can increase his or her chances of success in Atlanta because the city has the right ecosystem. “We’ll provide you resources and networking and connections that will help you be successful,” McGowan said.
While the Atlanta Development Authority never led a trade mission, Invest Atlanta has already been to China and will visit Brazil in April.
“Atlanta had just done so well for so long without having to really chase (foreign investment),” McGowan says. “It was just kind of falling in its lap. I think after the Olympics, Atlanta rode this wave of massive investment and interest in the city. And then we hit a recession, the economy brakes got hit.”
Now that the foot is off the brake, McGowan is going full speed ahead.
Working at the city level as opposed to the state or federal level is “much more professionally satisfying,” he says.
“When you’re working at the state or at the federal level, you miss the opportunity to be a part of the actual implementation and see the outcomes directly of the work that you do.”
And McGowan can keep an eye on it from the 29th floor.