The Future Will Not Be Like the Past

Housing and construction have been cornerstones of the metro Atlanta economy for decades. Housing was the reason we grew, the reason we crashed and it will be an essential part of our recovery. While experts are still debating the future of housing, it’s clear that if metro Atlanta is going to thrive, we have to build for a new reality.

In 2011, former Senators George Mitchell, Mel Martinez, Christopher “Kit” Bond and former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros formed the Bipartisan Housing Commission. For more than two years this group led a nationwide effort to consider how we might get housing policy back on track. Last week, joined by several hundred economists, bankers, developers and regulators the Commission spent two days reviewing their recommendations and debating how to re-invigorate financing and provide quality housing for people of all incomes. They assessed the state of the economy, lamented all the reasons why Congress isn’t likely to act and contemplated how the nation’s changing demographics will fundamentally and permanently re-shape housing markets.

by Kathryn Lawler, Manager of Aging and Health Resources, Atlanta Regional Commission

by Kathryn Lawler, Manager of Aging and Health Resources, Atlanta Regional Commission

While extensive regulatory change, new but limited ways to share risk, investments in housing for low-income renters and owners and tax reform are all desperately needed, the Commission devoted a considerable number of its recommendations to the aging of the population. They invited the Atlanta Regional Commission to Washington last week because of our ground-breaking work to build Lifelong Communities and our experiences and knowledge about how to address the needs of older adults. The Commission believes, as does the Atlanta Regional Commission, that longevity will so profoundly reshape housing, transportation and the economy, that we must thoughtfully prepare and creatively re-imagine how we live together.

In the Atlanta region we have accumulated considerable expertise on how to diversify housing options, re-balance transportation investments, create walkable communities that keep people of all ages healthy and engaged and offer the supports and services to help metro residents stay out of hospitals and nursing homes. Our challenge, as we shared with the Commission, is that we are not positioned to do any of these things at scale.

Like the rest of the country, we are aging; but Atlanta is aging faster than most major metro areas. Atlanta has to get housing back on track so our economy will follow. But we can’t build the way we built before because we aren’t the same. Our population will include far more older people than have ever lived in Atlanta and as a share of the population, far fewer young people. This new community requires a diverse set of housing options and perhaps just as important, transportation options. But, our rules about what gets built, where it gets built and how it gets paid for are holding us back. All across the country and around the globe, individuals, private companies and governments are facing the same challenges as they look to respond to the rapidly changing population. Atlanta can be the inspiration — if we are willing to build and invest at scale.

We can start by tripling investments in transportation for non-driving and older populations. We should significantly and quickly expand pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure that both keeps people healthy and helps them get where they need to go. We should allow innovations in supportive and senior housing within existing communities rather than on the edges or in highly commercial corridors. Policy makers should invest in services and community supports for older adults rather than cutting them. And we must re-align our health system to incentivize prevention rather than procedures. None of those strategies will be easy.

The future will not be like the past. We must invent a different way forward that addresses the new reality of a growing older adult population rather than rely on policies of the past that no longer reflect who we are.

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Urban Agriculture Grows Jobs and Community in Addition to Fresh Food

Dan Reuter, Community Development Division Manager, Atlanta Regional Commission

Dan Reuter, Community Development Division Manager, Atlanta Regional Commission

The most basic and routine part of our day — access to food — involves one of the most complex planning processes.

Food is many things.  It is culture, embodying ethnic traditions, family recipes and social opportunities.  It is wellness – the fuel that we need to stay healthy and the nutrients we need to thrive.  It is a commodity – it represents job creation, economic development and innovation.  And, food is sustainability, insofar as we strive to create food security for all residents of metro Atlanta, providing diverse options while minimizing harmful environmental impacts.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agricultural production in Georgia topped more than $9 billion in 2012. Yet the vast majority of metro Atlanta’s food comes from outside the region and the state.  That imbalance has begun to change in recent years as access to locally sourced food has grown.  By the numbers, we enjoy the harvest from more than 200 urban farms, some 80 community gardens and urban orchards and more than 90 farmers market.

In addition, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs provide for direct investment into the local growing community, regular access to fresh fruits, vegetables and pasture-raised meats and opportunities for dining in restaurants that purchase directly from local growers.  The Georgia Department of Agriculture supports Georgia Grown, a marketing and economic development program to brand and promote locally grown products, as well as a Georgia Agritourism program that promotes value-added services on local farms.

A variety of unique urban agriculture programs is also sprouting in the region. The Global Growers Network was founded by Basmat Ahmed, who fled South Sudan during government-sponsored genocide. The network turned an underused park near Clarkston into a community garden for refugees and the disabled. The garden is a place where they can grow vegetables from their homelands and share them with the community. The garden offers a place where refugees can connect with others and with agriculture. Gardeners find not only the peace, camaraderie and nourishment of farming, they also receive agricultural training and earn money by selling excess produce at area farmers’ markets.

Adjacent to Atlanta’s downtown business district in the Castleberry neighborhood and modeled on the concept of World War II Victory Gardens is the Veteran’s Farmers Market. The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are more than 6,000 displaced veterans on Atlanta streets. The 3 x 3 Project, which operates the Veteran’s Farmers Market, gets those veterans involved in urban farming. A portion of the food helps supplement local shelters, and some proceeds help provide job and agriculture training for veterans.

In the southern part of the region, community gardeners created Community Gardens of Henry County, a nonprofit organization that operates five main gardens on vacant lots throughout the county. These gardens provide many positive things for the communities, including education, training, food production and green space.

While community gardens and urban farming are making a positive impact on many metro regions around the U.S., they also face a variety of challenges. These include high water rates, a lack of capital to start and maintain gardens and a scarcity of available space due to competition for vacant lots from more profitable ventures.

Locally-grown food provides fresh, nutritious sustenance for regional residents. The process of raising it provides jobs, physical activity, community building and business opportunities for citizens. Even though it has its challenges, urban agriculture in metro Atlanta has put down strong roots. The forecast is for a bumper crop.

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Time to Imagine the Metro Atlanta of the Future

Melissa Roberts, Community Engagement Manager of ARC’s Transportation Access & Mobility Division.

Melissa Roberts, Community Engagement Coordinator of ARC’s Transportation Access & Mobility Division.

How do you think the metro Atlanta region should grow and change?  What attributes do you love about your community? Are there places and qualities that should be protected as our region grows? How can we ensure that metro Atlanta remains globally competitive, attracts and retains the best workforce possible and continues to be a quality place to live?

These questions and more are posed in a new survey being conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) to inform future plans.  This survey offers regional residents a chance to prioritize six important goals for the future identified by the ARC board: developing a highly skilled workforce; ensuring a secure water supply; building a comprehensive transportation system; creating walkable, vibrant neighborhoods; becoming an innovation and technology hub; and improving access to arts, recreation and a healthy quality of life.

Input from this survey will be used to help ARC develop its Regional Plan of investment strategies and performance metrics that will guide public policies related to issues of transportation, land use, water quality, workforce development, aging citizens and health resources. The Regional Plan is a set of goals and strategies to ensure growth and a high quality of life for everyone in the region.

The survey is visual, interactive and brief. It allows for open-ended comments throughout, including the ability to suggest new priorities not yet identified.  This is the first of three surveys that ARC will conduct over the course of updating The Regional Plan, set to be adopted in the spring of 2016.  This first Regional Plan survey is available at www.atlantaregional.com/TheRegionalPlan and is open from the beginning of July through the end of September 2014.

Help us imagine your preferred future.

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Rehearsing the Future

by Kathryn Lawler, Manager of Aging and Health Resources, Atlanta Regional Commission

by Kathryn Lawler, Manager of Aging and Health Resources, Atlanta Regional Commission

There is much we don’t yet know about the 21st century. Clearly it will be marked by significant innovations in technology, science and medicine as well as a shift in who we are and how we live together. Dominant among these trends is the relatively new phenomenon of longevity—in this century we will live longer than ever before. Our region’s economic viability will hinge on our foresight to see and capacity to understand all these future trends.

On June 21-June 22, we will rehearse our future on two blocks of Auburn Avenue. Everyone in the region is invited to join the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) as we explore what a lifelong community looks, tastes and feels like. Using a technique called ‘tactical urbanism,’ two blocks of Auburn Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward will be transformed into a place where people of all ages and abilities can live healthy and full lives. Tactical urbanism is a proven approach that employs temporary improvements to focus attention on a specific area. The Sweet Auburn Living Beyond Expectations transformation is the first time in the nation that tactical urbanism has been used to highlight the changing needs of older adults and people with disabilities.

As the Area Agency on Aging, ARC has worked for nearly 10 years to encourage the creation of lifelong communities in the Atlanta region. Lifelong communities must be cool for the millenials, cool for the boomers and the design must be thoughtful and inclusive of those who have called the neighborhood home for decades. The Sweet Auburn Living Beyond Expectations transformation is the culmination of a multi-year project that ARC initiated to answer the question: What does it take to create a community that appeals to everyone—the old, the young, and all in between

The event actually begins Thursday, June 19, when planners, professionals in the field of aging participate a workshop about tactical urbanism and how it can effectively promote the options older adults need to remain active and engaged in their communities. Those in attendance will come away with a better understanding of this concept and how it will be implemented over the weekend in the Old Fourth Ward community of Atlanta.

Then, Friday, June 20, stakeholders and volunteers will grab hammers and paintbrushes to put the lessons learned the day before to work as they build a lifelong community in a single day along two blocks of Sweet Auburn Avenue. While the temporary transformation will last only through the weekend, this regional learning lab has the potential to lead to something more permanent – a healthy, walkable, bike-friendly place for everyone. Additionally, ARC hopes it inspires participants to advocate for changes within their communities to create age-friendly places throughout the entire Atlanta region.

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, June 21-22, the public is invited to visit pop-up shops, enjoy local restaurants and an outdoor movie theater; participate in demonstrations of urban gardening; take a clinic in bike safety and ride in protected bike lanes; enjoy history, bike and Living Walls art tours; dine at food trucks; get a health screening, join exercise classes and more. These are the options and choices we will all need throughout our lifetime and communities must provide if they are going to thrive in the 21st century.

Come rehearse the future with us.

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Changing Cities: A Look at Metro Atlanta and Barcelona

Dan Reuter Manager, ARC Community Development Division

Dan Reuter
Manager, ARC Community Development Division

Preparation for the 1996 Olympics began a period of growth and development in metro Atlanta that continued for more than a decade as the region added new infrastructure, jobs and housing. The region and state benefited tremendously from this period of expansion. While the Olympics was only one factor contributing to this period of expansion, it did propel redevelopment in the core of the city of Atlanta.

Metro Atlanta’s experience is not unique in the U.S. or around the globe. Many cities and regions experienced redevelopment of core areas and urban centers during the past 10-15 years as tastes and quality of life factors began to shift. Changing preferences among younger adults, long commutes and other issues have created new demand in older cities and suburbs. Included among global cities and a model for many issues that could benefit metro Atlanta is the city of Barcelona.

Several weeks ago, Georgia State University’s Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth completed “Study Space VII,” a week-long workshop in Barcelona.  Study Space brings scholars, government representatives and private sector professionals together to develop solutions to legal, social and policy challenges in urban areas. The Barcelona trip focused on issues of planning, housing and homelessness, as well as the policies and laws that led to Spain’s economic crisis.

Located in the Catalonia region between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona is a port city and metropolitan commercial hub of five million residents that shares a common historical bond with the City of Atlanta.  Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics immediately prior to the Atlanta Games.  Many organizers for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games attended in Barcelona.

Unlike Atlanta, Barcelona is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe and has a world-class transit system.  At first glance, Barcelona seems to be a model city. The urban plan, called L’Exiample, conceived in 1859 was implemented as the city grew beyond the historic walls. Through the L’Exiample, Barcelona achieved an immensely livable city with a grid pattern laid out at a 45 degree angle that today enables parking and corner cafes.  Wide, tree lined sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes run along all major streets in the city, supporting the active lifestyle of its residents and tourists.

The rail and bus system of Barcelona is the envy of travelers from the U.S.  Trains in Barcelona seem to reach every job center and tourism location within the region.  The stations, trains and buses are modern, safe and well maintained with three-to-four minute frequencies in the city.  Once travelers exit a station, the bicycle and pedestrian network connects them to their final destinations.  Many more scooters and motorcycles than are found in U.S. cities supplement travel for residents across the region.  The mixed-use development patterns provide many opportunities for cafés or shopping.

Like Atlanta, however, Barcelona is not without its problems. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union, with nearly 25 percent of the population out of work and unemployment among elderly, youth and immigrant workers at 50 percent.  Between 1998 and 2007, Spain experienced a housing boom spurred by declining interest rates, lax mortgage lending conditions, real estate speculation and foreign investment that caused home prices to triple.  When the bubble burst in 2007, Spain was left with a financial crisis that continues to this day. In 2014, many families remain unable to pay their rent or mortgages, and evictions are high.  Adding to their hardship is the fact that Spain does not have personal bankruptcy; therefore, after foreclosure and eviction, families are forever burdened with their mortgage debt.  Spain’s banks continue to hold thousands of foreclosed and vacant homes.  With a high home ownership rate of 84 percent, few homes are available on the rental market and few public housing units and programs are available to serve as a safety net.

Metro Atlanta’s often inexorable traffic may cause us to long for the type of transportation network found in older European regions like Barcelona, and their quaint shops, cafes and historical landmarks create lively urban places that attract people and business. However, Metro Atlanta has recovered more quickly from the downturn in the real estate market because of our more flexible housing and banking policies. Further, metro Atlanta is creating vibrant urban centers of its own through such programs as ARC’s Livable Centers Initiative and the good work of local governments and community improvement districts.

 Karen Johnston, Assistant Director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth at Georgia State University, contributed to this article. Next year’s Study Space trip will be to the City of Warsaw, Poland. kjohnston3@gsu.edu or 404-413-9175.     

 

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Metro Atlanta Leaders Find LINKs in Philadelphia

Douglas R. Hooker, Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission

Douglas R. Hooker, Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission

A group of more than 100 business, civic and elected leaders from metro Atlanta traveled to Philadelphia last week for the 18th annual LINK trip. A major focus of this year’s trip was how our regions can improve their economic competitiveness in a global economy.

LINK (Learning, Involvement, Networking, Knowledge), coordinated by the Atlanta Regional Commission, introduces the metro Atlanta contingent to its host counterparts and allows them to discuss issues common in the two metropolitan regions.

Philadelphia was chosen for the 2014 trip because the two regions are similar in many ways. Metro Atlanta’s population is 5,442,113, while metro Philadelphia’s is 6,018,800. Both regions have larger minority populations than the national average, and both have unemployment rates right in line with the national average.

One distinct difference between the two is that the City of Philadelphia accounts for 25 percent of the region’s population or 1.5 million residents. The City of Atlanta accounts for less than 10 percent of the region’s population, with 423,000. But the similarities outweigh the differences, especially since the primary focus of both regions is to improve their collective economies.

In order to learn as much as possible about the host region, the LINK participants hold meetings in different locations around the metro area each day. Over the course of three days, the metro Atlanta group met at the National Constitution Center, the University City Science Center and The Navy Yard. They heard from former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, current Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, Drexel University president John Fry, a state representative, two deputy mayors and the Chief Development Officer of Urban Outfitters, to name a few.

In Friday evening’s wrap-up session, after three days of comparing the two regions, the group was asked to determine its top priorities upon returning to metro Atlanta. The group chose to focus on working to increase the state’s spending on transportation and on collaborating more across business sectors, political jurisdictions and busy lives. They also want to increase the region’s focus on education and economic competitiveness.

On the subject of economic competitiveness, the group gained some insight on encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter explained that the City has a startup fund of $6 million ($3 million from the City and $3 million in private investment). Entrepreneurs can apply for grants from this fund to help them get their business and/or idea off the ground. According to Friday’s panel of entrepreneurs, the money is important, but what matters even more is the message that the city and the region are supportive of entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers.

One innovative idea that generated a lot of buzz was Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program. This program has not only created more than 3,800 murals that have beautified abandoned spaces and bland commuting corridors; it has transformed neighborhoods and, according to its founder and executive director, Jane Golden, her 30-year-old program has changed lives.

This program made such an impact, that on Friday afternoon, more than $73,000 was committed on the spot to start a public arts program for the Atlanta region. Another buzz-worthy idea was a venture capital fund similar to metro Philadelphia’s.  It’s possible that, like the Metro Atlanta Mayors Association and the Metro Atlanta Speaks public opinion survey in previous years, one or both of these could potentially be direct outcomes of the 2014 LINK trip.

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Walkable Centers at the Heart of Today’s Development Trends

Douglas R. Hooker, Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission

Douglas R. Hooker, Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission

Since 1970, the Atlanta region has grown rapidly. Like all major metros that hit their stride after World War II – when the automobile was king and interstate highways paved the way to work – Atlanta’s growth spread outward from the central city. New arrivals sought good jobs and cheap land, and with no natural boundaries in the way, the region now reaches from Cumming to Newnan and from Villa Rica to Covington.

During the last couple of decades, however, it became obvious to residents and elected officials alike that the infrastructure required for this outward growth pattern was too expensive. Furthermore, long commutes drained energy from our vehicles and consumed time we wanted to spend with our families.

All across the country, however, the pendulum is swinging back toward more walkable communities, the kind we saw before the Great Depression. And, according to a study by Chris Leinberger, research professor at the George Washington School of Business, metro Atlanta is participating in this new urban development trend.

The study, titled “The WalkUP Wakeup Call: Atlanta,” found that 60 percent of metro Atlanta’s income property today is in what Leinberger calls Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs), compared to only 14 percent in 2000. WalkUPs account for .55 percent of the region’s land area, but contain 20 percent of its office, retail and other commercial real estate, along with 22 percent of its jobs.

WalkUPs can be found all over the region, from obvious places like Downtown, Midtown and college campuses, to Inman Park, Doraville, Marietta, Hapeville and others. Many of these WalkUPs owe much of their success to ARC’s Livable Centers Initiative (LCI). Since it began in 2000,  LCI has helped 113 communities create more livable, walkable environments. ARC has provided $15 million in planning grants and more than $170 million in transportation investments that have helped revitalize downtowns throughout the region and energize major employment centers like Midtown Atlanta and Perimeter Center. Today, LCI areas account for five percent of the region’s land area, but they contain seven percent of the region’s housing, 24 percent of commercial space and 38 percent of office space.

And, according to public opinion, the majority of the region’s residents agree with ARC’s emphasis on focusing growth in areas that are already developed. ARC’s “Metro Atlanta Speaks” public opinion survey conducted in 2013 found that more than 75 percent of the 4,000+ residents surveyed, favored redeveloping older areas as the “best way for metro Atlanta to accommodate growth.” And when asked, “What is the best long-term solution to traffic problems in metro Atlanta,” more than 62 percent pointed to either “improvements to public transportation” or “developing communities in which people live close to where they work.”

Today’s communities are proving that the development pendulum is swinging away from hour-long car commutes and back toward compact, walkable places. ARC is proud to be a part of this change and, with our LCI program and our many partners around the region, we hope to continue the trend.

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Region to Invest Nearly $60 Billion in Regional Transportation System

Douglas R. Hooker, ARC Executive Director

Douglas R. Hooker, ARC Executive Director

The efficient movement of people and freight is critical to metro Atlanta’s economy. And, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) board will vote on the long-term PLAN 2040 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) at its board meeting Wednesday, March 26. This plan includes innovative projects to help address some of our most congested locations and to provide more alternatives to help people get around the region.

The RTP includes $59 billion to fund the region’s transportation priorities through the year 2040. While that is a lot of money, more than 70 percent of that goes to maintain the existing network, leaving us only about $18 billion for new projects. That too sounds like a lot. However, it doesn’t come close to meeting the region’s current needs, coupled with the fact that we expect to add almost three million more residents between now and 2040.

That means we have to use these funds wisely and efficiently. Fortunately, ARC and our planning partners — Georgia DOT, GRTA, MARTA and local jurisdictions – have identified a list of projects that focus on two primary goals:

  • Relieving the region’s worst traffic bottlenecks, and
  • Providing residents with more travel options that will allow them to get out of their cars and off the congested roadways.

On the region’s roads, the plan includes two new diverging diamond interchanges at I-75 and Windy Hill Road in Cobb County and at I-285 and Camp Creek Parkway near Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Diverging diamonds ease access to and from the interstates at a fraction of the cost of rebuilding an interchange. Both of these will provide easier access to and from major job centers.

The RTP makes substantial investments in the Georgia DOT’s managed lanes program to help with the extension of existing toll lanes along the I-85 corridor and the construction of new toll lanes along I-75 to the south and I-75/I-575 to the north. These will be new lanes, not the conversion of existing lanes.

Drivers on smaller highways will see improvements as well. For example, stoplights along Highway 316 in Gwinnett and Barrow counties are being replaced with overpasses and ramps that won’t slow through traffic. The installation of several “intelligent transportation systems” around the region will also improve traffic flow by automatically adjusting the timing of signals along major corridors.

To ensure more travel options, the RTP provides limited funding of operations for the Atlanta Streetcar and of MARTA to reduce wait times at train stations during rush hour. Both of these commitments will make it easier for people to choose public transportation as an efficient and reliable commute alternative.

Funding for additional bike and pedestrian facilities will make things safer for the people who use them. Over time, the region’s major trails will be inter-connected to create a regional network for recreation and for commuting.

Perhaps the best news in this plan update is that many of these projects are almost ready for construction or installation. Improvements on Highway 316 are already underway, and ground will be broken on toll lanes and diverging diamonds within the next five years. And of course, funding for enhanced public transportation will take effect almost immediately, with MARTA’s reduced wait times and the Streetcar’s operations both scheduled to begin this summer.

When it’s all said and done, PLAN 2040 protects previous investments in the existing system, adds infrastructure where it can have the most impact, makes strategic use of the region’s limited financial resources and quickly delivers on its commitments.

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Living Beyond Expectations

Kathryn Lawler

Kathryn Lawler
Manager, ARC Aging & Health Resources Division

Over the past 100 years, life expectancy has soared from the early 40s to the mid-80s. Twentieth century science, public health and medicine are responsible for these tremendous gains, and projections suggest that these trends will continue. Atlantans are living longer than ever before, yet the region’s physical environment and infrastructure investments continue to be made with little consideration for this newfound and unprecedented longevity. The question we now face is, What does it mean to live beyond life expectancy? Beyond Expectations?

The Atlanta Regional Commission and Public Broadcasting Atlanta are challenging the region to ask these questions and to re-imagine how we can create communities for all, regardless of age or ability. The conversation begins at 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 18 with a half-hour televised panel discussion on PBA 30. Guests examine how the region can join communities around the globe that are analyzing shifting demographic changes and planning to accommodate all. In addition, we have collected stories of Atlantans living into their 70s, 80s and 90s as they attempt to remain in their neighborhoods and communities. These vignettes will to air throughout the spring and summer.

ARC and Georgia AARP have been out in the community as well, engaging Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, local officials and others  about what it means to grow older in the Atlanta region and what is needed to live beyond expectations. Through focus groups, community forums, key stakeholder meetings, an online survey and a telephone town hall, ARC has collected the opinions and perspectives of a diverse group of residents, which it will use in its present and future work.

In June, the region is invited to see what a Lifelong Community looks and feels like. Two blocks of Auburn Avenue will be transformed into a vibrant destination that appeals to and supports individuals both young and old. This section of the Old Fourth Ward will serve as a living laboratory illustrating the potential for new business, safer streets and healthy everyday living. Demonstrating that age-friendly design can benefit not only all residents but the economy of a local community, this exciting event is targeted in particular to local residents, elected officials, planners, developers, architects whose short- and long-term decisions can help the region adapt and prepare.

The 21st century offers the promise of longevity, but for the promise to be realized, communities must become places where people remain healthy and engaged throughout their lifetimes. We need more housing and transportation choices, better strategies for maintaining health and expanded access to services. As science and medicine increase our opportunity to life longer, community design and infrastructure must begin to reflect that longer lifespan.

Aging is a funny thing. As individuals, we often spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on procedures and drugs to pretend it isn’t happening. This is certainly our individual choice. But, as a region, we cannot continue to spend thousands and millions of dollars pretending aging isn’t happening. Longevity will be the demographic trend that defines the 21st century. The region has the opportunity to plan and prepare to maximize the potential of this shift or deny and delay while other metro regions across the globe move ahead.

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Metro Atlanta Looks South for Economic Growth

hooker headshot

Douglas R. Hooker, Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission

The Atlanta region has always been defined by its thriving economy. For more than 40 years, we were one of the fastest growing metros in the nation as people moved here for job opportunities and quality of life.

While the region’s economy is diverse, that rapid growth meant construction was a critical slice of the economic pie. And, that factor left us more vulnerable than other regions to the collapse of the housing market during the Great Recession.

Today, however, metro Atlanta’s economy is rebounding. Unemployment is dropping, and home values are moving up. Among the 12 largest metro areas, the Atlanta region now has the nation’s third fastest job growth, behind only Houston and Dallas, which puts us back in familiar territory as one of the country’s growing job bases. However, it’s how we’re making our way back that makes business leaders and economists most optimistic.

Changing Direction

Historically, metro Atlanta’s job growth has trended overwhelmingly north. From Downtown to Buckhead and up the major commuting corridors to Cobb, Gwinnett and north Fulton, the jobs and wealth travelled. South metro communities were largely left out in the boom days of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. That pattern has begun to change in recent years, as more opportunity has begun to arise south of I-20.

Businesses and entrepreneurs are bringing creative, innovative growth industries to the Southside of the region. Attracted by Georgia’s tax incentives, global companies like Pinewood Studios, Screen Gems and others have made huge investments in metro Atlanta, turning Georgia into the third largest state for film production. According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, in FY2012, the film/music/entertainment industry represented a $3.1 billion economic impact in Georgia, a 29 percent increase over the previous year.

Matt Forshee, President and CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority, believes the film industry will be the biggest catalyst for economic growth on the Southside since Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Pinewood’s first phase features more than 100,000 square feet of state-of-the art sound stage.

Making sure they have the skilled workers they need is on the minds of both Pinewood and county leaders. Pinewood’s offices are currently housed in a nearby elementary school, which the company plans to convert into a film training school. In addition, the Fayette County school system is in the process of creating a pilot program in digital animation with Toon Boom, a worldwide leader in digital content and animation software. Students who successfully complete the program will be prepared for jobs in the film and gaming industry. Further north, Clayton State University is opening a 10,000-square-foot film studio in the Jonesboro area and offering courses in digital media, music video production and more to stay ahead of demand.

On another front, exciting things are taking off at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, and a major asset on the Southside. Hartsfield moves more than 250,000 passengers and almost 2,000 metric tons of freight each day and directly provides some 50,000 jobs. And, with the new international terminal, it is now the gateway to even more of the world than before. While this makes the airport one of Georgia’s primary economic engines, it also makes it a prime place to spur more economic growth.

After more than two years of stakeholder meetings convened by the Atlanta Regional Commission, airport-area leaders have formed the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance. This new organization represents governments, businesses, schools and nonprofits from the communities around the airport. The alliance will seek to leverage the airport’s economic power to increase economic development, mobility and quality of life around the airport as other cities such as Paris, Seoul and Dallas have already started doing. The Alliance is focused on creating a world-class aerotropolis, a business hub centered on Hartsfield-Jackson that will attract more corporate headquarters, businesses, retail and housing.

The first new corporate headquarters in the Atlanta Aerotropolis area is now under construction. Two years ago, Porsche Cars North America announced plans to construct its $100 million North American headquarters complex next to the airport. The company cited proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson and high visibility to both air travelers and drivers along I-75 as the reasons for choosing the location. Ultimately, the project is expected to add some 400 jobs to the region.

The Home Depot has looked to the Southside as well. The company opened a direct fulfillment center in Locust Grove in Henry County last month. The 1.1 million square foot facility is expected to employ almost 400 Home Depot associates. It’s one of only three direct fulfillment centers in the country.

As metro Atlanta’s economy rebounds from the recession, the Southside is not being left behind. It is starting to create a jobs magnet around the world’s busiest airport and finding ways to grow and further diversify its workforce. These efforts on the Southside will help ensure the future success of the entire region.

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