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From Site Selection magazine, July 2024

The Highway That Changed The South

From AI to super commuters, I-85 has seen it all.

I-85 interchange in Atlanta, GA.
Image: Adobe Stock


here is only one way to fully grasp the economic impact of Interstate 85 through the southeastern U.S.: You have to drive it.

Northeast Georgia resident Kim Flatford has been doing just that for the past 10 years. The vice president of an insurance claims company based in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, she is one of the many American workers who fit the description of a “super commuter” — someone who drives at least 90 miles from home to work.

According to a recent American Community Survey, an estimated 4.6 million Americans qualify as super commuters. Flatford stretches that label even further. Her commute requires 211 miles behind the wheel each way.

A resident of Flowery Branch in Hall County, a northern exurb of Atlanta, Flatford drives from her house to Charlotte once a week, spends a day working in the office, and then drives home. She works remotely the rest of the week.

She’s been driving this 422-mile roundtrip weekly since 2014. During that time, she has witnessed many dramatic changes to I-85 and the cities it connects.

“At some point, they started doing construction projects all along the route,” she says. “The commute got longer and longer. My commute time increased from three hours to three and a half hours, and then eventually to four to five hours due to road closures. I saw empty roadside sites become full warehouses. Gaps along the highway became filled in with new development. Now, everything merges together.”

Some call that progress. Others call it economic development. Either way, there is no overstating just how impactful I-85 has been on every county that touches this 666-mile-long freeway.

Stretching from its southern terminus in Montgomery, Alabama, to its northern terminus in Petersburg, Virginia, just south of Richmond, I-85 is to the South what the Transcontinental Railroad was to the entire country 150 years ago.

Since 1958, portions of I-85 have served motorists in the South. Today, it is the region’s undisputed king of commerce. According to data from the Conway Projects Database, virtually every county along I-85 regularly lands at least one economic development project each year. In large counties, that number is much higher.

An analysis of these data reveals that the following 10 counties attracted the most projects between January 2023 and March 2024:

Top 10 I-85 Counties in Projects

The top two counties in capital investment are Fulton in Georgia (Atlanta) with $4.5 billion and Greenville in South Carolina with $1.05 billion. Next are Durham in North Carolina at $933.6 million and Guilford in North Carolina at $778.6 million. Just behind them is Montgomery in Alabama at $765 million. In new jobs created, DeKalb County, Georgia, in metro Atlanta was the runaway winner with 4,000.

While automotive manufacturing continues to dominate project activity in the region, economic diversification has been the story of the past two decades along I-85 in all five states it runs through: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

Meta Data Center in Montgomery, Alabama (600web).jpgMeta just announced an $840 million AI-optimized data center in Montgomery, Alabama.
Rendering courtesy of Meta and Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce

One of the region’s biggest projects was announced May 2 in Montgomery, Alabama. Meta, parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, will invest $840 million to build a new data center in the state capital. The 715,000-sq.-ft., AI-optimized facility will be built close to the Hyundai automotive assembly plant near the intersection of I-85 and I-65.

Shelby Stringfellow, senior vice president of industrial development at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, says that winning this project “was a long process that was very fruitful. They were able to find a great site in a great location. We had everything they needed. We had the available land, water and sewer.”

Landing the South’s first Hyundai plant in Montgomery two decades ago set in motion the factors that would eventually bring Meta to the area, he adds. “I-85 starts in Montgomery. I-65 and I-85 come together in Montgomery and make this a good place to produce goods,” he notes. “We are building an inland rail port that will connect with the Port of Mobile to our south. Within 24 hours, containers will be able to go from Mobile to Montgomery for pickup on trucks for delivery to wherever they need to go.”

Near I-85’s other end, in Durham, North Carolina, a smaller but important project was announced June 11. That’s when IONNA LLC, an electric vehicle charging station developer, announced it would place its global headquarters in Durham, invest $10 million and create 200 high-wage jobs in the Research Triangle. At an average yearly wage of $128,457, the new jobs at IONNA in Durham will create an annual payroll of more than $20 million.

IONNA is a new company that was founded by seven of the world’s top automotive manufacturers: BMW, Hyundai, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Kia, Honda and Stellantis. All of these firms have operations somewhere along I-85. So do Porsche, Peterbilt, Freightliner, Mack Truck, Volvo and others.

As these firms continue to grow their footprint in the South, add to their manufacturing muscle and hire more workers, they also seek to capitalize on a growing population that is increasingly adopting EVs. The one thing every EV needs is access to chargers. Thanks to companies like IONNA, Georgia Power, Duke Energy and Electrify America, chargers are popping up all along the Interstate at places like Walmart, Dunkin’ and Circle K, enabling drivers to make longer trips.

As for super commuter Kim Flatford, she says she has no plans to quit her long drives anytime soon.

“I’ve been with the company for 33 years,” she says. “My husband and I found this fabulous community that is close to Lake Lanier. I pass the time on the road by listening to audio books, and I take the opportunity to catch up with my children. Plus, I can work on Bluetooth while driving. The commute is not a big deal when the traffic is good.”

AdobeStock_123842344.jpgPanoramic overview of downtown Atlanta, Georgia from I-85.
Image courtesy of Adobe Stock


Samir Abdullahi, Director of Economic Development, Select Fulton in Atlanta: “If you want to tap into the Southeast market, Atlanta is your starting point. It offers connectivity to all other nodes in the South: Charlotte, Nashville, Montgomery, Greenville-Spartanburg and the Research Triangle. That is why so many regional headquarters are coming here. FanDuel moved its headquarters from New York to Ponce City. Morgan Stanley signed a large office lease in Alpharetta. PrizePicks has committed to 1,000-plus jobs and is locating its headquarters here. Microsoft is looking at Atlanta for a second headquarters. Boston Scientific moved to Johns Creek. People and companies will continue to move to Atlanta and the 14 other cities in Fulton County.”

Ken Moon, Executive Director, Cherokee County Development Board, South Carolina: “People know us as the site of the Big Peach in Gaffney. Many firms choose our market because we are 30 minutes to Spartanburg and 45 minutes to Charlotte or Greenville. Our target industry is advanced manufacturing. One of our biggest employers is Freightliner Custom Chassis. The impact of the Interstate is huge for our economy. Some 75,000 cars a day pass through here. Dollar Tree chose us for their premier distribution center in the country. Champion Foods just signed a $96 million deal last year to open a food production facility in Cherokee. With nine interchanges on I-85 and a lot of land at each, we are poised to capitalize on our location in the heart of the automotive corridor.”

Jamie Gilbert, Economic Development Director, Oconee Economic Alliance, Oconee County, South Carolina: “We are midway between Charlotte and Atlanta. We are located literally at the top of the state of South Carolina. Tourism is big business here, but we also have one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing employment in the state. Manufacturing firms thrive here due to the workforce and access to I-85. With the Golden Corner Commerce Park and what we’re doing along Highway 11, this county has laid the foundation for it to be the next tremendous growth center in South Carolina.”

Nick Masino, President and CEO, Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, Gwinnett County, Georgia: “I-85 is driving growth in investment here. I-85 is the lifeblood of commerce and business for Gwinnett County. We have over 600 international businesses in Gwinnett. I-85 is the main reason for that. You would take that highway to go to Washington, D.C., Richmond, Boston, Philadelphia and New York City. I-85 is why we have 110 companies from Japan and 100 companies from Germany. We have over 150 million square feet of flex and industrial space. No other county in Georgia can say that.”

Ron Starner
Executive Vice President of Conway, Inc.

Ron Starner

Ron Starner is Executive Vice President of Conway Data, Inc. He has been with Conway Data for 22 years and serves as a writer and editor for both Site Selection and the company's Custom Content publishing division. His Twitter handle is @RonStarner.


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