Best & Worst States for Business Regional Report: The Southeast

#7 TENNESSEE: Expanding Workforce and Education
Tennessee’s Drive to 55 program aims to equip 55 percent of Tennessee residents with a four-year college degree or certificate by the year 2025. The initiative offers high school seniors tuition-free attendance at any of the state’s 13 community colleges or 27 colleges of applied technology. Ted Townsend, COO for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, says it was the first state in the nation to make this kind of promise to its citizens. “We’ve made a commitment that education beyond high school is a top priority and it’s important for our workforce,” he says.

Companies have responded with notable investments and expansions. Last year, GM announced a $788 million expansion at its facility in Maury County and, in 2015, Nissan further expanded its facility in its Smyrna campus. “All of our automotive OEMs have had expansions and that has had a multiplier effect with driving expansions from the supply chain,” Townsend says.

One challenge the state faces is expanding economic development to its rural areas. Townsend says 78 of Tennessee’s 95 counties are rural, with 19 of those considered “distressed” by federal definitions. In 2016, Tennessee passed the Rural Economic Opportunity Act to improve rural infrastructure and make tax credits more accessible  for rural business.


The Port of Savannah has been growing in national and international significance, reaching record cargo volumes in 2017.

#8 GEORGIA: The Southeast’s Financial Hub
Atlanta has been building on its long-held position as a financial and commercial center. More than 70 percent of the financial transactions in the U.S. are routed through home-based payment processors such as World Pay, First Data and Global Payments. In recent years, Atlanta has become one of the country’s top fintech capitals. Eloisa Klementich, CEO of Invest Atlanta, says the area is home to 90 fintech companies employing more than 30,000 people. The tech-related activity and talent is also spurring development in other sectors.

More than 20 major companies, including Home Depot, Panasonic, Boeing and Siemens, now base innovation centers in the state. Klementich says the development is being fueled not only by the corporate talent base, but by the community of more than 250,000 students at the area’s four major universities. “There’s an explosion at the crossroads of technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and each of our clusters,” he says.

Out on the coast, the Port of Savannah has also been growing in national and international significance, reaching record cargo volumes in 2017. It is now one of the few ports on the East Coast that can accept the largest ships coming through the expanded Panama Canal. Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, believes the port’s impact on the state will grow as the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is completed in 2020.