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Maria's Metro

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

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

    Not necessarily, although I should mention that if Judge Magnuson’s court order stands and the Feds turn-off the spigots from Lake Lanier to Metro Atlanta in 2012, our best days won’t just merely be behind us, our best days will be nothing more than a drug-induced hallucinagenic pipe-dream and a delusion of grandeur in the duration of a psychotic episode. Besides that, some cities that experience massive growth often go through periods of growing pains where they feel as if they’ve lost their way. The growing pains come in all forms from natural disasters to challenges with crime and natural resources such as water availability.

    Chicago went through some well-documented struggles during prohibition and the depression era with organized crime trying to overrun the city in the 1930s. San Francisco suffered through the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. Los Angeles suffered through water issues during a time of explosive growth in the 1920s and 30s and then through riots in the 60s and 90s and extreme gang violence in the 1980s. New York suffered through a period of extreme high crime and extreme urban decay from the 60s through the 80s.

    In many instances, over time great cities can emerge even stronger and more vibrant from seemingly insurmountable challenges. The great challenges recently posed to Atlanta in the form the Great Drought of 2006-09, the gas crisis of 2008, the ongoing economic/real estate/housing/foreclosure crisis and the transportation and water infrastructure challenges seem daunting to Metro Atlanta and North Georgia now because Atlanta is a relatively much younger large city than NY, LA or Chicago.

    The level of drought that severely affected a much smaller Metro Atlanta of roughly two million residents in the 1980’s seems catastrophic to a much larger Metro Atlanta of nearly six million residents twenty years later.

    When Atlanta had two million residents, traffic may have seemed quite challenging, but 20-25 years later traffic seems paralyzing and embarrassing to the same Atlanta that has nearly three times the population at nearly six million. What I’m saying is to not abandon all hope for a better, more “enlightened” approach to these issues that may right now seem just simply crushing to a city and state that is basically brand spankin’ new to the big leagues. The same big firestorm over illegal immigration that is going on in North Georgia right now, New York, California and Florida went through many years before. Illegal immigration, like struggles with water and traffic, isn’t really anything new, just a new experience for a place like Georgia that until just a few short years ago was basically an isolated provincial backwater populated with only blacks and whites. Believe me, when states start talking about making laws to run away illegals, history shows that their illegal immigration problems and diversification are just beginning in earnest, just ask NY, CA and FL.

    Atlanta can emerge from these challenges in water, transportation and education a much stronger city. The city won’t be the same as before, it’ll be different, but it can emerge as a stronger city and region if it learns to conserve water, approach transportation in a mult-modal fashion and realize the value of wise and innovative investment in education.Report

  2. Jim Brams February 7, 2011 8:23 am

    Let the other cities have the “glory” events – and the DEBT they all leave behind. I’m sure Atlanta will do just fine without the big-deal events that never quite work out the way the planners say they will!Report

  3. SpaceyG on Twitter February 7, 2011 8:56 am

    No worries. Joel Babbit will fix it all. Again. For a half a million clams per useless slogan.Report

  4. a transit fan February 7, 2011 10:55 am

    Where are you going with this, Maria? Bill’s article was only fair — certainly not stirring.

    I suppose I’m down on Atlanta, and I’ve visited Saporta Report hoping for a lift. That didn’t happen; this is another churn of problems. I implore you to ink sparingly over problems when giving little consideration to possible solutions.Report

  5. pn February 7, 2011 12:43 pm

    “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.”

    A perfect summation of the problem. Low taxes=low public services=low quality of life.
    Who in their right mind would want to move to GA now? If our lowest per-capita tax rates haven’t summoned the magic genie from the bottle in the past 8 years, more of the same is unlikely to improve our situation. Meanwhile the State of Georgia is going to be fighting wildfires (literally) with a fraction of the Forestry Commission staff it once had, the Agricultural Extension offices are closing, no one is picking up trash on state highways, public education is being gutted, etc.,etc.Report

  6. Donald Baxter, Iowa City, IA February 7, 2011 1:42 pm

    As an Atlanta native who doesn’t live in the city anymore, I can tell you that I think Atlanta inside the city limits is a vastly improved place from the city I left for Iowa back in 2000. But then, I’d not evaluate the city by its ability to court the likes of the Super Bowl or the Olympics and surely not the DNC. Atlanta is growing in population for the first decade since the 1950s. Judge your city by whether it’s dying or not. Atlanta is clearly no longer a place on a death watch.Report

  7. Steve February 7, 2011 3:37 pm

    The $85 million will too get spent, at least part of it, on a multi-modal station that won’t have one spike of rail – what’s up with that?Report

  8. BPJ February 7, 2011 4:50 pm

    I agree with Donald Baxter: Atlanta (the city) is greatly improved. Over the past 20 years, the city population increased 25%; failing cities don’t attract so many educated people (yes, Atlanta ranks high on lists of cities attractive to college graduates).

    The economic slowdown, with accompanying slowdown in mobility and population growth, gives us an opportunity to plan for growth. While the city is over half a million now (highest ever), it’s not hard to imagine 600K and more in 15 years. We need to be building the transit NOW to accommodate new people and business; the current infrastructure is overly dependent on one mode of transportation.
    One disadvantage Atlanta has had in recent years is a state government which ranged from indifferent to hostile toward its capital. The legislatures of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida generally have been more positive toward their cities. However, House Speaker Ralston shows signs of being Atlanta’s new best friend. Mayor Reed knows the General Assembly inside-out. This matters, because Atlanta depends on the state for much that it wants to accomplish. (People who blame “Atlanta” for not doing this or that need to recognize that often the city of Atlanta is a bystander to state government, especially the DOT, which has the real decision-making authority. Hence the importance of the proposed T-Splost; for the first time, we in metro Atlanta would have our own pot of money for transportation.)

    So some of our goals need to be things we are already pursuing: the Beltline, commuter rail, light rail, and MARTA expansion.

    Atlanta has several advantages over cities such as Charlotte, Tampa, or Nashville. First is our concentration of universities, Atlanta’s greatest assets. More on that another time.

    I’d like to spotlight something else which is an Atlanta advantage over the cities mentioned here: the arts. In visual art, classical music, and theater, Atlanta is well ahead of Charlotte, Nashville, Birmingham, etc. The arts are one of the fundamental reasons people live in cities, and great talent magnets. We need to support what we have, and improve on that. Cities such as Houston, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, and Miami illustrate what we need to do next.Report

  9. Federico February 7, 2011 8:09 pm

    I agree with BPJ’s suggestion that the cultural cachet (both high culture and city-living culture) still put Atlanta above anywhere else in the South except perhaps New Orleans (but that’s a different story even without the effects of Katrina). But I also agree that Atlanta has lost its way. Atlanta, Dallas and Houston are perhaps America’s greatest success stories of post-World War II accumulation of wealth, and in Atlanta’s case there was no highly valued natural resource driving the economy. It was all about business acumen, self-promotion and the inevitable windfall of relocation of the American industrial economy from the north to the south. Atlanta became wealthy as a result and took from that the empowerment to do big things (an airport, a rail transit system, a major convention center, a summer Olympics). Atlanta no longer does big things, and this is the first sign of its decline.

    But it is also possible that Atlanta is reaching natural limits– the metropolitan area is now indistinct in its physical expanse and character, and at some point further growth simply can no longer work. Having good weather and a good climate for business and development will only take you so far. And yes, we are running out of water.

    All of this means that Atlanta’s next steps are to recognize its assets and considerable talent, to stop stifling innovation and take the city and region ahead as a forward-thinking center of creative capital and entrepreneurial talent. If suburbs don’t want to play along, they can stay behind. The city will continue to attract the brains and will benefit in the end. I don’t think that missing out on a Super Bowl or a party nominating convention are anything to feel left behind over– both are massive money-sinks and often see little public benefit beyond temporary name recognition (nothing was sadder than reading of the venal acts of self-destruction that already-moribund Detroit committed in preparing for its 2006 Super Bowl). But when Atlanta repeatedly fails to attract new industries because of its suffocation of change and new ideas, it’s time to start looking for houses in Raleigh.Report

  10. tim February 8, 2011 2:40 am


    atlanta has not lost its way; it is merely taking a breather. our most recent expansion of marta happened a mere decade ago. the beltline, one of the most innovative ideas anywhere has been continually moving forward. (this IS a big thing!) companies are still moving here, and expanding here. (sonyericsson, redhat, panasonic, ncr, etc) even our excess in office space has been filling up nicely, if you pay attention to the biz news.

    bank failures can’t continue forever – we’re eventually going to run out of small banks. (knock on wood that SunTrust isn’t bought out by some Canadian bank…)

    atlanta is also not reaching natural limits. there is a huge amount of underdeveloped land ready for infill and densification, even inside the city limits itself. this is still the lowest density major metropolitan area, by a wide margin. we are also not running out of water, and in fact receive huge amounts of rainfall. we have simply not planned enough on increasing reservoir capacity – something else which is in the works.

    i definitely agree with those who have said it isn’t a big deal that we aren’t going to be holding the Super Bowl/DNC/RNC anytime soon. there are far more important things we should be focusing on now, like quality-of-life issues.Report

  11. a transit fan February 8, 2011 11:43 am

    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.

    Let’s advance to asking hard questions.

    Is the mandate of the MPO contrary to denser growth? What’s the downside of lashing MARTA to the state? What funding formulas might apply to trauma care? Should money be spent on a streetcar line without an preceding bus route proving the way? What are the suppositions for measuring success for the Beltline in 10, 20, or 50 years, and is the current implementation plan suitable?Report

  12. John February 9, 2011 11:33 am

    “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.”

    If the above statement is true, then how ON EARTH did New Orleans get a Super Bowl? The Superdome will host Super Bowl XLVII, and it opened back in 1975. Does the NFL feel sorry for the city because of Katrina?Report

  13. Lonnie Fogel February 14, 2011 7:25 pm

    I thought the Atlanta metro area was more livable and worked better when it was smaller. I think Atlanta needs to stop feeling and behaving like a city on the make. The marquee events like the Olympics and Superbowls are like snow flurries….lots of action for a while, but nothing that sticks. Mostly a waste of time and money.

    Focus on good schools, safe streets, mass transit and a new, distinctly un-Southern environmental sustainability ethic and the city’s best days will be ahead.Report

  14. Lonnie Fogel February 22, 2011 8:16 pm

    Just to be more clear on what I think Atlanta should do — turn away from the “growth is good” imperative and develop a sustainable, low-growth economy and social ecosystem. Trees don’t need to grow to the sky to be healthy and beautiful.Report

  15. DH February 27, 2011 4:04 pm

    Interesting article– though the idea that some sort of malaise set in after the ’96 Olympics is clearly inaccurate– the period from 1996-2008 was one of the most dynamic in the city’s history– likely the recession has damaged this real estate based economy in fundamental ways that will take a while to figure out– very true the state doesn’t help at all– but they never have… perhaps an easier thing to cope with when we were 2m as opposed to the present (close to) 6m..Report

  16. DH February 27, 2011 4:06 pm

    @Lonnie Fogel– while appealing to some– a slow or no growth Atlanta is antithetical to this city, its history and I would argue its fundamental character… smarter growth– a necessity… no growth– not in this place…Report

  17. Bullwinkle February 27, 2011 9:54 pm

    I’m with Lonnie. The city of Atlanta is long overdue for some practical, problem-solving leadership. Parts of the city have done well in recent years but the central city downtown is ROTTING. Ga. State’s growth and CNN-Centennial Park are the only things preventing it from being a total wasteland…in between the two it’s a lot of filthy, broken sidewalks, panhandlers and flea market storefronts. I’ve worked there for years and it is getting worse by the week. Mayor Reed needs to forget about air cargo and port dredging and work on the nitty gritty. Fix the damn sidewalks, pick up the trash and clean up 5 Pts! That would do more to boost the city’s reputation than all the Super Bowls or Final Fours in the world.Report

  18. Michael March 2, 2011 2:10 am

    I actually think Atlant a partcularly central Atlanta is being revived. I moved downtown and love it. I now laugh at people struck in all that traffic. As for as the convention Atlanta have large conventions throughout the year, and is a magnet for huge religious events. Sure we have the water, and education issue, but they will be resolved.Report

  19. jm March 15, 2011 10:50 am

    Oh relax. Conventions and super bowls do not define a city. And stop beating the same drum about MARTA receiving state support, etc. Atlanta should, and can, deal with its own problems.

    Your column, which seems to be a continual whine about ATL the victim of the NFL and GA Legislature, is a symptom of any malaise. ATL’s “can-do” attitude is more exhibited in Reed’s recent actions than by this column.Report


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