Arthur Blank: Changing Westside ‘a 20-to 30-year commitment’
By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on August 19, 2016
When Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank decided to build a new stadium next to the Georgia Dome several years ago, he had a parallel motive.
“We wanted this to be game-changer for the Westside, a catalyst,” recalled Blank, during an interview Aug. 10 with Atlanta Business Chronicle. “We will get the stadium built. But changing the Westside is going to be a 20- to 30-year commitment.”
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation pledged to invest $15 million in a Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund. That amount was matched by a commitment from Invest Atlanta.
To date, the Blank Foundation has committed $9.95 million of that fund, leaving a little more than $5 million to invest in the community.
Those funds, however, have been leveraged by other partners for an additional investment of $8.1 million.
Blank’s other philanthropic interests, such as the Atlanta Falcons, have committed another $4.4 million in the area. For example, a grant was recently approved to start a flag football league in the area.
Despite all the initiatives that are underway, Blank and his team members voiced some frustration that more had not been accomplished.
“If I were to be critical, the Westside Future Fund is not as far along as I had hoped it would be,” Blank said in the interview. “We have to develop an agreed-upon master plan that we can then take to major corporations and foundations, much like Tom Cousins did with East Lake, to get the funding.”
Blank, however, said the area is reaching a tipping point, and he views his foundation’s investment as seed money.
“I view that more as a down payment, a call to action for other nonprofits,” Blank said. “When you look at how you measure success, we should look at it with a longer lens. We are developing some positive momentum. When people talk about momentum, the first thing is to stop the trend line from going down.”
The Westside communities — namely Vine City and English Avenue — have suffered from poverty, crime, blight, flooding, unemployment, depopulation and poor education.
For decades, Northside Drive has served as the dividing line between downtown with its amenities and the isolated Westside communities.
“I don’t want another version of a big wall,” said Blank, who instead painted a canvas of a “downtown version of Piedmont Park” connecting Centennial Olympic Park, the property where the Georgia Dome now stands and connecting to the proposed Mims Park across Northside Drive. The Blank Foundation intends to hire someone who will coordinate activities in the area on the 315 days when there are no football and soccer games in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Penny McPhee, president of the Blank Foundation, said there will be outdoor escalators for pedestrians wanting to access the area. The City of Atlanta is also planning to build a pedestrian bridge that would be bicycle-friendly.
“We want to provide connectivity improvements that allow people to feel safe crossing to and from the Westside,” said Frank Fernandez, the foundation’s vice president of community development who has been working primarily on the Westside.
The Foundation, however, has focused much of its giving in building human capital. In just two years, the Westside Works program has trained 350 people in the area with skills such as construction, and placed 320 of them into jobs.
In the last six months, it has been working with Invest Atlanta to provide a zero-interest loan to Quest Communities to acquire blighted property in the communities. So far, 77 properties have been acquired out of the 300 in Vine City and English Avenue. Another 200 blighted properties have been identified in adjacent neighborhoods.
“You’ve got to stop the downward spiral,” Fernandez said. “You are starting to see that occur. You want to acquire enough to move the market.”
McPhee said that when the Westside Future Fund establishes its planned acquisition fund, that kind of investment will accelerate.
At the same time, McPhee said partners are trying to be sensitive to making sure they are not displacing the people currently there, but actually improving their lives, and that the area remains affordable.
“It is slower than anyone thought it would be, but it is moving in the right direction,” McPhee said. “We have been trying to create capacity in the community so the people can sustain it after we seed it.”
Blank seems to be straddling a line where he wants to help the community move forward, but he wants it to be a team effort and not one where he is the champion.
“It’s hard work bringing all these people together,” Blank said. “This is not about the individual. It’s about getting the job done. It’s about making a difference.
“The individual brand on this is not important. The brand needs to be the community. It needs to be a multi-fabric solution where everyone is woven into the fabric. There’s a long list of reasons for the community to own the solution and not a handful of companies or individuals.”
Looking to the future, Blank would like to see development up and down Northside Drive as well as a reinvestment in the historic fabric of the communities. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Vine City on Sunset Avenue; the breakfast table of the Civil Rights Movement was Paschal’s Motor Lodge on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
“Those areas need to be treasured,” said Blank, who will turn 74 in September. “Maybe I’m getting older and I want to be treasured. The buildings that are significant to the community need to be maintained and woven into the fabric. It’s not just significant for Atlanta but for the region and the country.”
Blank, who has turned over the day-to-day business duties of his businesses to Steve Cannon, recently got married to Angela Macuga, and they are blending their two families. He appears as fit as ever after having cancer surgery earlier this year.
With the season of the Atlanta Falcons about to begin, Blank said: “I still want to win a lot of games.”
But Blank also has a long lens focused on his own life, saying: “Ninety-five percent of this estate is going to philanthropy.”
So when it comes to declaring success on the Westside, Blank spoke in terms of the people who live there.
“I would like to see a vibrant community that’s alive — a place where families want to invest for their children,” Blank said. “The way to measure significant change for the better is whether people are electing to stay there and raise their children. It’s a declaration for the future.”