Q&A with Gretchen Corbin, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Community Affairs

Shawndra Russell

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

On August 1, Commissioner Corbin celebrated her 1-year anniversary of being at the helm of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA). While she feels that a lot was accomplished in her first year, she has no plans of slowing down and is dedicated to making an even bigger splash—with the help of her great team—in year two. We chatted with Ms. Corbin about adjusting to her role and what else she has up her sleeve for Georgia’s economic development. 

CEO: Tell us a little about your background. Where you grew up, went to school, and what led you to the commissioner position. 

Corbin: I’m a native of Cedartown and grew up there. My dad worked at a community bank, so I grew up around business and naturally gravitated in that direction. My first job after college was with Rome and Floyd County’s effort to recruit national Olympic committees to bring their athletes to the area for training prior to the 1996 Games in Atlanta. I didn’t know what I was about to do, but I did know it was a huge opportunity, and that’s the first time I learned to say ‘yes’ when an opportunity came my way.

I went from there to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which at the time was known as the Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism. I started in Tourism and migrated quickly to the business side, working first as a project manager for existing industry in the Northwest Georgia region. Over the years, I was fortunate to be able to move into a director position for the existing industry program, as well as for international operations and finally into the Deputy Commissioner position for Global Commerce…essentially, all of GDEcD’s business operations. And then, last summer, I began serving as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. August 1st marked my first full year on the job, and I’ve loved every minute. 

CEO: For folks that don’t know, can you explain what the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) does? 

Corbin: We’re very diverse—we have 425 employees working in 65 different programs, and 24 of those are programs that do funding. Last year, we provided $246 million in housing and community assistance through both state and federal programs, and that spurred an additional $2 billion in private investment. We are the community development and housing agency for the state. We also serve as the ‘bank’ for economic development, in that we administrate the economic incentives that the state awards communities to help businesses locate and expand. We also provide multiple kinds of technical assistance and training for local government officials, in everything from economic and downtown development to community planning to construction codes. 

A very important part of what we do is to provide safe and affordable housing opportunities. Our assistance in that area spans the gamut from assisting first-time homebuyers, helping people in hard times avoid foreclosure, and working to prevent homelessness. We also partner with communities to ensure there is adequate housing for their workforces. For instance, HomeSafe Georgia is a federal program that helps unemployed people keep their homes from being foreclosed on while they get back on their feet. Governor Deal recently expanded it to include other at-risk groups such as people undergoing medical emergencies or military-related transitions.  In the three years DCA has administered the program, it’s helped 5,400 families in 124 counties stay in their homes. 

For individuals, we also have programs for rental assistance and homelessness prevention. We have a program that helps small businesses get access to private financing. And for communities, we have a number of different kinds of grant and loan programs. Among the better known are Community Development Block grants, Appalachian Regional Commission grants and the Community Home Investment program. 

CEO: August 1 marked your one-year anniversary as commissioner. What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of in your first year? 

Corbin: There’s actually quite a bit I’m proud of, but I’ll give you the short list. And let me preface this by saying that every single accomplishment is the result of a team effort. I was very fortunate to join a talented, hard-working staff that has long experience in pulling together to make things happen. So, our staff is certainly something I’m very proud of. 

During last session, we worked with the Georgia Municipal Association and the legislature to pass the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Fund, which gives Georgia’s cities additional tools to revitalize and re-energize their downtowns through low interest loans, planning and other kinds of assistance. Governor Deal signed it into law in the spring. 

We’ve begun a program called PlanFirst, which recognizes and rewards the great work local governments do to implement comprehensive plans. We’ll announce our first designated communities in September. 

I’m proud that the state has gotten national recognition for several DCA programs.  HUD has acknowledged our Neighborhood Stabilization program, which is managed by our field services offices, as the top ranking such program in the country, and is holding up our management system as a model to other state grantees. The NSP program has provided almost $5 million to 14 Georgia communities so they can turn unused housing units into safe and affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families. 

The conversion of the historic Imperial Hotel in Atlanta into residential housing is a project we financed with low income housing tax credits. We worked on it for years with the City of Atlanta and a multitude of other public and private partners, and last winter it officially opened. Since then the project has won a national award for Tax Credit Excellence, and more importantly, provides much-needed housing in downtown Atlanta as a meaningful reuse of a historic landmark. 

I’m also very proud of the work we do to support veterans in various housing programs. We had a 98 percent success rate with the vets we were able to assist with permanent supportive housing solutions.  

I could go on, but I’ll stop with a success that extends into next year. For the first time ever, we’ve landed the national Main Street conference in Georgia. So, next March 30 to April 2, we’ll have the opportunity to show off the statewide success of our Georgia Main Street program to more than 1,500 downtown development professionals. 

CEO: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in this year and how did you overcome them? 

Corbin: We have 65 different programs here at DCA, and mastering the intricacies of each one of them has been a challenge. Fortunately, I have many knowledgeable colleagues who are experts in their fields. I would put the DCA team up against any community development or housing assistance team in the nation. 

CEO: How would you describe Georgia’s current economic state? 

Corbin: I’m as encouraged as anyone else that unemployment is down from a year ago. We see from our work with the Department of Economic Development and communities that companies are coming into the state and expanding here on a regular basis, so jobs are being created and retained. 

But DCA has many programs that may be able to help people who are still struggling, and we encourage those people to contact us, or find out about them through our local partners. 

CEO: What is your vision and/or mantra for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs as commissioner?

Corbin: I think it’s important to strive for the top, by building our communities so they are able to maintain their competitiveness and keep Georgia at the leading edge. I think of the next generation, and the kind of Georgia we want to leave for them. What kind of infrastructure and training do we need to put in place to ensure they have something to build on? Say someone comes along with the kind of vision that a William Hartsfield had to create a world-class airport…or a Ted Turner to build a CNN. And you know those visionaries are already out there. What can we do to, not only to mentor and nurture them, but also to ensure we are putting the building blocks in place in our communities so that they can build their vision and make it reality? I would have to say that this goal—that we need to think beyond ourselves—helps guide me.

CEO: As you look ahead to your second year as commissioner, what are your plans? 

Corbin: I’m still very focused on helping people outside the agency understand who we are and what we do, especially how we can help them. If the full scope of our functions has been a revelation to me, I know it will be to others. So we’re consistently reaching out to our communities, organizations, other state agencies, elected officials and individuals, not only inviting them to get to know us better, but also finding ways to make our services more accessible. 

CEO: Why do you think Georgia is a great state to live and work in? 

Corbin: Georgia has everything! The business climate is great, which we knew even before we were ranked number one in two national publications. And you can’t beat the quality of life here. I’m so proud that our programs at DCA are very focused on helping communities enhance quality of life and business. No matter what you want…big city or small town atmosphere…beach, mountains, rivers or farmland…major league sports or high school football…you can find it here. The fact that the film industry has been coming here for decades—even before the tax incentives—shows that. We’re a popular destination for tourists and retirees. And even during the height of the recession our population continued to grow, which tells you that people see opportunity here. 

CEO: What tools and strategies do you use to keep the DCA team connected both internally and externally? 

Corbin: Externally, as I mentioned, we’ve been making a concerted effort to help people understand all we have to offer and the great resources that can help them, their communities, and/or their businesses. The team and I have gone out to meet with community groups and have hosted them at the department. We’re also scheduling some board meetings in parts of the state outside metro Atlanta.  And we’re working on a redesign that will make our website easier to navigate and find information on. 

Internally, we’re instituted some new ways of sharing information so that whereas before, we might have had just one program assisting a community, now we can bring others to the table who might be able to help. And our staff is benefiting from our new ‘Spirit Committee,’ which provides another avenue for engagement and which spearheads the annual State Charitable Contributions Fund drive. I’d like to say that I’m especially proud of our staff’s participation in last year’s SCCP campaign: our employees upped our total contribution from seven to 77 percent, and more than doubled the amount we raised for charity. So we had the biggest percentage increases than any other state agency. That’s a real credit both to our staff and the Spirit Committee, which worked hard on the campaign. 

CEO: Which Georgia cities do you feel are most primed for growth? 

Corbin: Opportunities exist for every Georgia city, and it all starts with that community having a vision, rallying behind it, and proactively taking steps to assess and market itself. It’s also important for them to know what resources are out there to help them. I encourage any city to contact us so we can help them understand DCA’s many resources. We can also guide them to other sources of assistance.   

CEO: Speaking of growth, which industries do you expect to see growth? 

Corbin: We are fortunate to have a diversity of industries in the state, which contributes to our economic resiliency and helps attract investment. We continue to be a stronghold for manufacturing, much of which capitalizes on our agricultural products. We have a lot of automotive industry here, and Kia’s location in 2006 has brought in even more. Because manufacturers are constantly moving parts and products, and are facilitated by the Georgia Ports and by Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as well as a network of state and federal highways; we’re a logistics hub as well.

Also, the bioscience industry continues to grow, anchored by our universities that produce so much talent, groundbreaking research and start-up companies. Georgia has a real reputation as a business hub: we’re up to 17 Fortune 500 companies who have headquarters in the state, and many others have significant operations here, from distribution centers to data centers and everything in between. As long as we have the airport, ports, our great workforce, and great leadership like Governor Deal’s and the legislature’s in keeping our state competitive, we’ll continue to grow. 

CEO: Anything else you’d like to add? 

Corbin: Just that I’m enjoying every minute of my time at DCA. I so appreciate Governor Deal’s confidence in appointing me commissioner, and our staff for helping make this a wonderful first year. I’m very much looking forward to the years to come!