As other cities rise, are Atlanta’s, Georgia’s best days behind us?

Soul searching. That describes Atlanta today.

Recently, several local leaders have questioned whether we’ve lost our moxie, whether our best days are behind us, whether we have lost our aspirational zest.

Watching the Super Bowl in Dallas did bring back memories of the two times when the Super Bowl was played in Atlanta.

My former colleague at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bill Torpy, wrote a thoughtful story of our current mindset in Sunday’s paper.

In 1994, we had just built the Georgia Dome, and we were two years away from hosting the Summer Olympic Games. The fervor and the excitement in town was intoxicating.

But by the time we hosted the 2000 Super Bowl, we had begun to lose our competitive edge. It didn’t help that the big story that year was Atlanta’s freakish ice storm, which interrupted so many of our Super Bowl festivities.

And today, it is fairly obvious that it will be many years before we host another Super Bowl. Sadly, the National Football League has created a financially crippling environment for communities — they must spend hundreds of millions of dollars on revamping or building new stadiums before a city will be awarded with a Super Bowl.

Metro Atlanta and Georgia are financially constrained, making it difficult to justify spending that kind of money on a football stadium instead of the pressing needs in our region and our state.

Plus, the dirty little secret of the NFL is that communities often spend millions of dollars to bid and host Super Bowls. Plus, many communities forgo their sales tax on NFL events during the Super Bowl meaning that governments have a hard time recouping the dollars that they have to spend to host the big game.

Then there’s Charlotte. Last week, Charlotte won its bid to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention. And Tampa will be hosting the 2012 Republican National Convention. If Atlanta had even contemplated going after either of these conventions, obviously it wasn’t in the cards.

What a change from 1988 when Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention. That was our real debut on national and international stage showing that the city had ascended to a whole new plateau.

Could Atlanta pull it off? We did. And the 1988 political convention and the 1994 Super Bowl provided dry runs for the biggest sporting event in the world — the 1996 Olympics.

It was almost as if Atlanta had the Midas touch. Everything we touched turned to gold.

But Atlanta was like an awkward teenager during its hosting of the Summer Games. Olympic organizers and city leaders did not present the best impression to the rest of the world. And there was little coordination among the city’s leaders on figuring out how best to use the Olympics to permanently propel Atlanta to world-class status.

After our experience of hosting the Olympics, we’ve had a hard time finding our way. There has been a disconnect between our state government leaders and our regional and city leaders. As a result, the state and the city have not invested in our all-important infrastructure that contribute to our quality of life.

Why? We have become prisoners of the less government, lower taxes mantra. Rather than demanding smart government and wise public investment, we pride ourselves in saying we have the second lowest per-capita state taxes in the nation as well as the second lowest motor fuel taxes.

As a result, Georgia ranks near the bottom on all sorts of measures — education, infant health, road maintenance, land conservation and public investment in the arts.

And when it comes to supporting transit and rail transportation, Georgia has been almost invisible. MARTA is the largest transit agency in the country that does not receive regular operating support from its state government. And Georgia is still sitting on about $85 million of federal funds that was supposed to go towards building the first commuter rail line in the state.

So the City of Atlanta and the region’s core have had to carry much of their own load. The city had to pay for its $4 billion sewer system overhaul. Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb have been paying the MARTA sales tax for 40 years although it is a resource for the entire region and the state.

Those same governments have been supporting Grady Hospital with very little support from the rest of the region or the state — although it too is critically important for the entire metro area and the state.

And which government has been investing in the state’s top economic engine — Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport? The City of Atlanta.

Atlanta has successfully won a $47 million federal grant to build a streetcar, and it is self-funding the local match. The City also has been investing in that transformational project — the Atlanta BeltLine. Where would we be without an activist city?

Imagine how strong our region could be if our state, our metro counties and our cities could join forces to invest wisely in our quality of life and a stable economic future.

In the meantime, we can sit back and watch Charlotte and Tampa host the 2012 political conventions, tune in to Super Bowls in other cities and wonder how we’ve lost our way.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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