With regionalism under attack, metro Atlanta’s prosperity likely to suffer

By Maria Saporta

For the life of me, I don’t know why or when regionalism became a dirty word.

As a student of cities, I have observed that urban areas that are able to create regional partnerships to address their most serious challenges tend to be the most prosperous metro areas.

And the metro areas that take a fractured and uncoordinated approach to dealing with their regional issues — say transportation, water and coordinated development — tend to be less efficient and effective in their ability to provide services to people living and working in their regions.

Unfortunately, metro Atlanta today is trending toward the fractured approach rather than the unified and coordinated one.

“The concept of regionalism really is under attack,” said Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning entity for the 10 counties that make up metro Atlanta. “The concept of working together is considered to be a bad thing. I hear it every day — that somehow regionalism is negative.”

It’s hard to know where the sense of unity breaks down.

Is it urban versus suburban? Cities versus counties? Big cities or big counties versus small cities or small counties? Richer areas versus poorer areas? White versus black? Republican versus Democrat? Too many governments? Too many chambers of commerce? No overwhelming unifying force — a galvanizing sports team, a metro-focused governor, a regional identity?

“We are very balkanized,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said at a recent “lessons learned” gathering of attendees who were on the 2013 LINK trip to Houston. “We need to find something that matters enough to the region that we can come together and get rid of balkanization. It didn’t happen with transportation.”

Civic leader Ann Cramer thought Atlanta could create a similar organization to the Houston Partnership to bring all regional business organizations together rather than have isolated efforts.

“A lot of folks are competing with each other,” agreed Kevin Green. “We have so many counties and so many cities. How do you create a structure where we can actually be regional?”

Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said that regionalism tends to go in and out of vogue.

“When resources are short, people don’t embrace regionalism as much,” Bolling said. “With regionalism, by definition, you are taking a longer view.”

A case in point has been the Regional Commission on Homelessness, an entity of eight governments formed in 2003 with a goal of eliminating chronic homelessness within 10 years.

The Commission did create more than 2,400 supportive housing units, build the Gateway Center to better serve the homeless and created several partnerships.

But in May, the City of Atlanta proposed creating its own nonprofit organization to take over the city’s federal and state funding intended to reduce homelessness in the area.

The regional coalition already had begun to fall apart even before the city started to go its own way. DeKalb County announced that it was pulling out so it could have more control over programs for its homeless population.

Such a move is distressing to some who had viewed the regional commission as a model for addressing an issue that does not stop at city or county boundaries.

“The regional commission made great strides and had significant measurable successes to get the counties to work together and made the programs more effective,” Bolling said. “That regional cooperation recently has been fraying around the edges as federal policies have changed and as local governments have chosen to go their own way.”

Milton Little, president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, said that getting the region to work together is more critical than ever because poverty is now as much of a suburban problem as an urban one, and people who need social services are spread out all over the region.

“The cities, the suburbs, the counties are all connected by the economy,” Little said. “To think that one can exist in a healthy way without another just can’t work. Somehow people believe that taking on a regional agenda somehow means ceding control to someone else.”

But really the reverse is true.

“We have got to understand the symbiotic relationship that we are dependent on each other, and we can not live in isolation,” Little said. “It remains hard to build those regional coalitions that are strong and consistently work well, but we have to keep at it.”

Two meetings last week provided hope that metro Atlanta could bring the region together.

The first was when Georgia Sen. Brandon Beach brought together the Transportation Senate Study Committee on Public Transportation for the Metro Atlanta Region.

His goal was simply to see if there could be a way to get the various transit systems in the region to come together as a regional transit system. To make his point, Beach showed a video of how he tried to go from Kennesaw State University to the Gwinnett Arena using transit — an adventure that took him several hours using several different systems.

Case in point, Leithead said that 57 percent of the people who live in Cobb leave the county every day to go to work, so transportation is not a county-by-county issue but a regional one.

The tone of the Senate committee meeting was a positive one — discussing the idea of a single governance structure that had been proposed by the regional players. In the past, the governance issue broken down over the state wanting control without wanting to provide transit funding.

The second encouraging development was an initial presentation of the Atlanta Metro Export Plan — an effort to boost the exports of Atlanta-based companies. The effort is partnership of several organizations that includes the Metro Atlanta Chamber as well at the Georgia Ports Authority and local businesses.

One of the greatest successes of regional cooperation in the past decade has been the North Georgia Water Planning District, which brought together several counties to help them address their water needs.

There is the saying: “Think Globally; Act Locally.”

Well going forward, we need to also say: “Think Regionally; Act Locally.” And just as important is: “Act Regionally; Think Locally.”

In the end, it all comes down to doing what’s best for Atlanta — greater Atlanta.

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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