By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, November 16, 2012
Key Atlanta companies are rallying around Junior Achievement of Georgia’s plans to create a novel, hands-on financial experience for middle school students.
The facility — to be called Junior Achievement’s Chick-fil-A Foundation Discovery Center – will be located on the mezzanine level of the Georgia World Congress Center’s Building C.
The project will include two virtual cities — JA BizTown and JA Financial Park — that will re-create real-life experiences for middle school students attending Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County Schools and DeKalb County Schools.
The Chick-fil-A Foundation is contributing $5.1 million toward the project — primarily to underwrite the 10-year lease at the convention center for nearly 50,000 square feet, according to Rodney Bullard, president of the Chick-fil-A Foundation.
In addition, SunTrust Banks Inc. and the SunTrust Foundation are signing on as major partners on this initiative. The SunTrust Foundation is making a $1 million grant to the capital campaign, and SunTrust Banks will provide $400,000 in sponsorships as well as volunteer support. SunTrust will be the presenting sponsor of the JA Finance Park.
In all, Junior Achievement has raised about $7.5 million toward its $9.1 million campaign goal.
Construction is expected to begin at the first of the year, with opening expected in the fall. It is expected that 30,000 students and 6,000 volunteers will participate in the learning experience each year.
“We go into this thing almost 100 percent booked,” said Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A Inc. “The demand is there.”
Jenner Wood, president and CEO of SunTrust’s Atlanta/Georgia division, said the project fits perfectly with the goals of the bank.
“Our purpose for being is lighting the way to financial well-being,” Wood said. “We can help these youngsters begin on their journey to financial well-being.”
In addition to Chick-fil-A and SunTrust, several other companies and organizations are supporting the project.
The Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, which is part of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations, is making a $1 million gift to the capital campaign.
JA’s board members also have pledged $1.1 million toward the project, according to Jack Harris, the president of JA-Georgia.
Several companies already have signed on to be included in the two virtual cities.
The companies that will be part of JA BizTown are Chick-fil-A, Bank of America, Newell Rubbermaid Inc., PGi and United Parcel Service Inc.
And the companies that will be part of JA Finance Park are SunTrust, Chick-fil-A, Assurant and Georgia Power Co.
“By the end of this calendar year, we should have about 25 companies that have bought in,” Harris said. In all, there’s room for 32 companies.
In an effort to attract other companies to join in, Junior Achievement and Chick-fil-A held a luncheon for local executives at the Metro Atlanta Chamber on Nov. 14.
“There’s a place for everybody at this table,” Cathy told the dozens of people at the lunch. “It may be with your checkbook or it may be with your calendar.”
Junior Achievement has about 25 JA BizTowns and JA Finance Parks across the country. They have proven to be effective ways to teach financial literacy to middle school students, an age that is considered to be critical in understanding how businesses and budgets work.
When Cathy toured some of these parks across the country, he thought to himself — “we’ve got to have one of these in Atlanta.” He started working with Junior Achievement a couple of years ago to bring the concept to town.
“I was almost embarrassed that Atlanta, being the business capital of the Southeast, didn’t have one of these,” Cathy said in an interview. “We have an opportunity to create a higher level of financial literacy and responsibility among students. I’m also excited about the introduction of free enterprise principles — understanding what work is all about.”
The Atlanta center will be “a notch” above the others, Cathy said. It is being located in a “premier, marquis” facility where it will be seen by people from around the world that are in town attending conventions.
It also is located across the street from Vine City, one of the communities in Atlanta that Chick-fil-A has targeted for its philanthropic efforts.
Having a facility that teaches financial literacy is needed today more than ever, Cathy said. The financial system has become much more sophisticated and complicated, and it has left a lot of people on the sidelines. As a result, people have ended up being overextended with too much consumer debt or mortgages they can’t afford.
If students can develop an understanding of business and finances at a young age, they will be better prepared to meet life’s challenges.
The JA BizTown is geared to sixth-graders. Before spending the day at BizTown, the students receive about 20 hours of curriculum in the classroom. Every student will be given specific jobs — from working in a bank to being the mayor of BizTown. They then will spend the day working with the local companies that are part of Atlanta’s business community.
The JA Finance Park is being geared to seventh- and eighth-graders. Each student is given a life scenario — an income, a job and a family — and then they have to adjust their lifestyle and purchasing decisions to fit their budget. Students must have a balanced budget before their day is complete.
“It’s about how they make responsible financial decisions,” Harris said. “It gets pretty deep with some real core life lessons.”
Although this facility is only serving three school systems, they represent about one-eighth of all middle school students in Georgia.
“Our board feels that we really have a vision here,” Harris said. “What if we are able to take this to every student in Georgia? One of the reasons we are so excited is because this becomes a great showcase for what it can look like.”