Georgia’s 83rd governor, Brian P. Kemp, was sworn into office on January 14th at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, a location that likely raised some eyebrows among his fellow University of Georgia graduates. They needn’t fret. Among other topics, Governor Kemp told Site Selection Editor in Chief Mark Arend in an interview just two weeks after his inauguration that he has big plans for his alma mater, including making it the top agriculture school in the nation. It doesn’t have far to go — UGA is currently ranked the third best agricultural school in the nation by Pittsburgh-based Niche, which ranks schools, neighborhoods and companies.
The new governor, who had served previously as the Peach State’s Secretary of State since 2010 and in the state Senate prior to that, is well aware of Georgia’s status as the top U.S. state business climate for six consecutive years, according to this publication. How he plans to maintain and build on that legacy was the focus of the late January interview, highlights of which appear here. A renewed focus on rural Georgia will play a prominent role.
What are your plans for building on Georgia’s record as being the best state for business for the past six years?
Governor Kemp: I have a little different perspective than Governor Deal, not that I don’t have the same goals and objectives that he had with our economy and where we are in our state. I give him a lot of accolades — and to Governor Perdue as well. He had to govern during some very tough times with the recession and keeping our triple A bond rating and positioning our state to do well after the recession. I went to 12 of the 13 regional meetings as part of Governor Deal’s original competitiveness initiative — we had all run on jobs and economic development.
I’ve been in the private sector over 30 years — I’ve been the one signing the checks. I’m still doing that today. I’ve been a small business guy, and I see my role as building from where we are and to take us to the next level, continuing to be the best state for business. But I also want to make us the best state for small business. In our state, there are a lot of areas where small business people are still struggling. People are moving away and there aren’t a lot of customers, in rural Georgia.
I campaigned on Putting Georgians First and said the first day I was in office that would be the first thing I did. It was my first executive order — creating that committee. We will be naming the members soon. It will be geographically diverse — people from all over the state that will bring all dynamics of our economy, whether it’s true small business or big corporations. We’re working on what we will charge them with now. How do we be number one for small business, how do we measure that, and what do we need to do? There will be other things, but they will look at reducing regulations, streamlining operations for state government, how we make our state more competitive in areas we may not be right now, and looking at our tax structure.
The good thing for us in terms of taxes is if we can just get the economy to hang on, I’m planning on lowering the state income tax again. That is in the pipeline to do. It’s one reason we did the teacher pay raise this year, to get the bulk of that behind us so it would free us up to cut taxes again. The economy will dictate a lot of that.
Are there other initiatives you are eager to get working on as your administration gets under way?
Governor Kemp: In terms of technology, something I’m considering in addition to the Putting Georgians First committee is to have an Information Technology Advisory committee. We can compete with anybody in IT. Think about Columbus and Atlanta in terms of fintech, Atlanta and other areas with health-care IT, and we’re now a major player in cyber with the Georgia Cyber Center in Augusta and Fort Gordon [home of the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence]. We’re working on how to keep fostering that cyber environment. I have a lot of experience in that, being in the Secretary of State’s office, with protecting our systems and the whole debate around critical infrastructure, the federal government and what that entails. We did a complete private-sector model restructuring of our IT department. The value of the Cyber Center in Augusta and the mission at the base are huge. I envision it being like the port is to Savannah — it serves the rest of the state as an economic driver, and I think Fort Gordon and Augusta will do that.
What happens if and when RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) legislation comes before you, and pressure builds to veto it from those with planned or existing operations in the state?
Governor Kemp: I don’t think the threats are as great as the press makes them out to be. I have been very clear on my position, which was the same position Governor Deal took when he campaigned, which was to support the federal language. The problem was the legislature passed their bill with more than that in it, and he vetoed it. I would do the same. If it’s more or less, I would veto it. What I would support and sign would be word for word what’s in the federal statute. About 31 other states have that same language — every single state around us does. It has nothing to do with the North Carolina bathroom deal. We’re not going to have a bathroom bill here. We believe that if our business people and our local schools have that issue, they can deal with that. I’ve been clear on that and have been saying that for a long time. Most people here — people in the film industry I’ve talked with and people in California threaten to boycott and what not, but the people here taking advantage of the film tax credit don’t want to deal with the political heat, but they’re not leaving. I’m very pragmatic about this issue. I’m not out there beating a drum. If people take the position that they need to boycott us, then I’ll take the position that they need to boycott Florida and Tennessee and Alabama and South Carolina.
We’ve talked about the importance of being the best state for small businesses. What should readers know about your interest in the large projects, the ones that create hundreds or thousands of jobs with one project?
Governor Kemp: Sometimes people take my passion for small business to mean that I’m not going to be focused on getting the Norfolk Southerns or NCRs or Porsches of the world. That is absolutely not the case. I was with Governor Deal recently when he announced the great news in Jackson County with lithium-ion battery maker SK Innovation coming, which will be huge [$1.67 billion investment, 2,000+ jobs]. I am a big fan of that. I would like to see more of that spread out around the state. But I am a realist too — there are a lot of reasons people want to be in Atlanta. It has a lot of bandwidth, especially with things going on around the airport. There are great opportunities in south Atlanta, but we have to work on fixing the schools there.
Being a business man, I’m very comfortable sitting in a board room talking to CEOs. I was invited by the Serta-Simmons CEO to come to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Serta’s 500 jobs and new headquarters at the old GM site in Doraville. I’ll continue to do what Governor Deal has done and go after those folks. People are coming to the Southeast because we have a good business environment. We may not get every one of them, but we will get our share, and it makes us all compete. I hope other states keep overregulating and overtaxing. It will be great for us, not only regarding companies in the United States, but foreign businesses. We have a great economic development team at GDED. I’m definitely going to put my stamp on that and focus on rural Georgia and how to grow jobs and investment there. I won’t be upsetting the applecart there — that team is as good as anywhere in the country. I’m looking forward to continuing to be a governor that has, like former governors, focus on bringing bigger companies here.
One of the things I want to do with the economic strike team I talked about during the campaign is do a better job of figuring out what our assets are around the state and how to sell those. This means putting together a team at GDED that will focus solely on rural Georgia, to work with the economic developers in these counties to identify assets.
Another part of the Putting Georgians First initiative is how to focus on existing industries. GDED does that, and I want to learn more about that. We do very little in the way of incentives for people to grow, and it would grow jobs in places where we need them.
A new governor means a new approach to important state issues, such as workforce development. What are your thoughts on that important area?
Governor Kemp: We have to keep working on that. Governor Deal was very focused on that, and I will continue to do so. I also want to make the University of Georgia the number one ag school in the country. That is by far our biggest industry in the state. We have great opportunity there when you think about the world’s food supply needing to double in the next 30 years. As tough as it is in the ag economy with commodity prices being down, there is a big upside. There are only so many places you can grow crops, and we’re one of them. We have the talent here, the university, brain power from the research institutions, and we have the synergy with fintech, health-care IT and now cyber to be a leader in ag tech.
Between that and those other sectors, that will help us solve some of our labor problems down the road when you think about autonomous farm vehicles and other systems on the farm, like irrigation—anything technology-driven, I think we need to be a leader in the world in ag tech. We won’t get people to pick Vidalia onions 10 or 15 years from now with the immigration problem we have. Our factory workers — when you’re trying to compete with low-wage countries, you have to use technology to do that. When you have a tight labor supply, you have to offset it with technology. Then we have to retool the labor force to be able to work on the equipment or run or build the equipment to prepare our workforce for the jobs of tomorrow. All of that together, we can be as good as anybody in the country. That’s how I see us staying in the position we are in.
What do you see as your role in business recruitment?
Governor Kemp: I will be a governor that’s not afraid to go the West Coast or Boston and say, “You need to be investing more in Georgia.” They’re already investing here a lot. We have a low cost of doing business, a talented workforce — there are a lot of reasons to be here. Maybe we can’t lure a Silicon Valley or Boston business to Georgia, but there are a lot of businesses they could start or invest in here that would be here a long time. Some of them may not. We don’t need to be afraid of that, and we need to go and sell it to them.
I’ve been thinking about putting this IT advisory committee together in addition to the Putting Georgians First committee. We can get someone from Columbus involved in fintech, Atlanta fintech and health-care IT, people that were early in the startup world here, people in the private equity venture capital world, people in Augusta in cyber and the business community, somebody in ag tech, to create not a big group but a diverse group. These committees will give us a good road map on how we keep being competitive and stay at the top of the pack. It’s important for us to have an international brand, and we’re a great state to have it, certainly with the airport and the seaport. But we can build off that.