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After 20 years, LINK trips offer lasting lessons for Atlanta; Dallas delivers helpful insights

The 20 year club

The three Atlanta leaders who have been on every LINK trip - Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank; Randy Hayes, a developer based in Fayette County; and Robert Brown, an architect based in Decatur (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

For 20 years, metro Atlanta leaders have been traveling to other cities to gain insights on how to address our most pressing issues by seeing how other urban areas address theirs.

The LINK trips – organized by the Atlanta Regional Commission – also have played another vital role. They have helped leaders from all over the region get to know each other in an away-from-home setting – hopefully creating relationships so we can reach consensus and collaborate as we move forward.

20th anniversary book

The LINK 20th anniversary book published by the Atlanta Regional Commission with a grant from the Council for Quality Growth

About 110 leaders just returned from the Dallas-Fort Worth region, where we got to measure our progress against another Sun Belt city – one that is a top competitor.

Before going on the trip, the Atlanta Regional Commission hired me to help write a 20-year history of the LINK (Leadership, Involvement, Networking, Knowledge) trips. We decided to focus on the “take-away” lessons from each trip.

So the whole time we were in Dallas-Fort Worth, I kept wondering what we would take away from the 2016 trip.

Here is my first stab:

Going to Plano, Texas showed how a suburban town could welcome rail transit and become a healthier city able to adapt to future generations.

LINK Plano

LINK delegation in downtown Plano Texas (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Right after to Plano, we went to Frisco – an auto-dominated, suburban concrete jungle on steroids. The city of Frisco opted against paying for rail transit – choosing instead to pass a sales tax for economic development.

LINK participants were both in awe of all the development in Frisco and disgusted by what an unsustainable environment was being created.

But economic developers were in envy of the incentives that Texas cities had at their disposal to lure companies to their communities.

According to a New York Times study, in 2012, Georgia spent $1.4 billion on tax incentives – the equivalent of $144 per capita. By comparison, Texas spent $19.1 billion on economic incentives – or $759 per capita.

More than one leader on the trip said Georgia was going to have to become more aggressive to be able to compete with Texas.

DART light rail

A DART light rail car travels on a downtown Dallas street (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Several Dallas leaders admitted that growth in the “Metroplex” was not balanced. Most all of the development is occurring in the congested, affluent northern suburbs while the neighborhoods in south Dallas were hungry for growth and jobs.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told Atlanta leaders that equity is going to be central to the rest of his administration, and he is devoting his energies to attracting growth south of the Trinity River.

The Dallas region also has been working with foundation and education leaders on a comprehensive program to improve the outcomes of all its students – from pre-K to higher education.

The high point of the education panel was hearing from Dr. Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District. Hinojosa had been superintendent of Cobb County’s public schools until he was lured back to his hometown to improve its public schools.

Michael Hinojosa

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa sits next to Todd Williams, executive director of Commit ! Dallas (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“We need to attract the middle class back to the inner core,” Hinojosa said. “The middle class left cities. In Dallas, they were replaced with immigrants.”

When asked about his relationship with the media, Hinojosa gave a surprising answer.

“We can’t talk ourselves out of things our behavior got us into,” Hinojosa said. And then he talked about the cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public schools – acknowledging that the same kind of breaches also were happening in other systems, including Cobb.

“Thank God for Atlanta,” Hinojosa said. “There for the grace of God go I.”

Hinojosa also shared his views of leadership. “Command decision are easy to make and hard to implement,” he said. “Consensus decisions are messy and hard to make but easy to implement.”

education panel

Atlanta’s Ann Cramer asks questions of education panel, including Dallas ISD Michael Hinojosa (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Atlanta’s four regional organizations – the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the United Way of Greater Atlanta and the Community ion Foundation for Greater Atlanta – have been convening on an effort similar to the one in Dallas – called “Learn for Life.”

The LINK trip addressed a host of other initiatives that could apply to Atlanta – building a park over a highway, enhancing the area around the river so that people can enjoy the natural amenity, using the arts as an economic development magnet and how to expand a rail transit system in a booming metropolitan area.

At 20, the LINK trips have reached a certain level of maturity when people are wondering how we can best apply the knowledge we have learned from other cities and translate what we’ve seen into action here in Atlanta.

The real test will play out as we mold LINK 2.0 – a chance to bring it home.

The 20 year club

The three Atlanta leaders who have been on every LINK trip – Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank; Randy Hayes, a developer based in Fayette County; and Robert Brown, an architect based in Decatur (Photo by Maria Saporta)


Denver – 1997:
Regional cooperation: Mile High Compact; Coors Field; cultural investment;
Transportation: trying to pass a sales tax.

Seattle – 1998:
Thriving downtown: new retail, offices, residences and cultural centers;
Urban Growth Boundary: fighting sprawl.

Dallas – 1999:
Regional planning: forced by Civil Aeronautics Board to develop Dallas-Forth Worth airport;
Economic divide: economic and racial divide between north and south Dallas.

Cleveland – 2000
Power of Collaboration: efforts by regional leaders to “resurrect a sinking ship;”
Arts and Cultural Foundation: old Cleveland money creates strong foundation.

San Diego – 2001
Bus Rapid Transit: San Diego’s flex trolleys: an alternative to light rail;
Growth Choices: an urban vision with density or a more rural vision with less density.

Chicago – 2002
Dedicated Parks Funding: Chicago’s Park District raises funding for city parks;
Regional Mayors Association: Mayor Dailey talked to Shirley Franklin about
Transit governance: Getting an umbrella group to oversee region’s transit growth

San Francisco -2003
Transportation and HOT lanes: Can Georgia stop congestion?
Quality of life: Making the region attractive for the creative class.

Boston – 2004
Regional Transit Agency: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority served 172 communities;
Diverse Leadership: Atlanta a model by comparison.

Portland – 2005
Streetcar: Success of streetcar sparked downtown development;
Regional Leadership: Portland elects regional leaders.

Miami – 2006
Urban Renaissance: Downtown skyline full of cranes building new condo towers;
Regional Cooperation: Florida government promoting regional cooperation.

Vancouver – 2007
Complete Communities: Creating neighborhoods for people of all ages;
No Highways through Town: Vancouver blocked highway through the urban core.

Denver – 2008
Hospital Turnaround: Denver showed Atlanta how a public hospital can succeed;
Arts and Culture: Voters continued to pass sales tax for cultural institutions.

Minneapolis-St. Paul – 2009
Investing in Education: State’s corporate taxes helps give state top educational outcomes;
Quality of Life: Voters support arts, parks and water tax.

Phoenix – 2010
Renewable Energy: Phoenix invests in renewable energy – especially solar:
College-led Urban Revival: Arizona State University sparks revival in Phoenix.

Seattle – 2011
Transit Funding: Seattle passes transit dominant sales tax;
Sustainability: Signing Kyoto Protocol to make it one of the greenest cities in U.S.;
Emphasizing the Economy: Prosperity Partnership improves city’s competitiveness.

Washington, D.C. – 2012
Transportation: Growth of Metro transit shows Atlanta what it could have done;
Education: Reforming urban education using merit pay for teachers.

Houston – 2013
Public Opinion Survey: Atlanta follows Houston lead and starts Atlanta Speaks survey;
Diversity and Disparity: Most diverse city in the country has growing income inequality.

Philadelphia – 2014
Public Art: Atlantans intrigued with Philly’s Mural Arts Program;
Community Revitalization: Universities become anchor institutions for surrounding neighborhoods.

Toronto – 2015
Civic Action: A non-partisan group tackles key challenges in region;
Transit investment: Tracking movement of people versus movement of cars.

Maria Saporta

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.



  1. SteveHagen May 10, 2016 10:42 am

    I moved here from Miami. They have zero regional cooperation. In my view, the only thing they have done right is to invest in the arts and not sure what part government played. Suspect private collectors had the biggest impact. They have little economic development beside construction. The worst city in the US in terms of park space per resident. They are paralized in politics. Don’t bother to visit again!Report

  2. TA12 May 10, 2016 10:44 am

    Imagine what Atlanta could have done if we had paid attention to the 1997 trip = Regional cooperation, transportation.  the word is mentioned 7 more times over the 19 years and still we just don’t get it……………………………Report

  3. Burroughston Broch May 10, 2016 1:43 pm

    20 years of junkets at taxpayer and lobbyist expense.
    Nothing of consequence as a result.
    A waste of time and effort, unless you are a junketeer.Report


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