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With regionalism under attack, metro Atlanta’s prosperity likely to suffer

By Maria Saporta

For the life of me, I don’t know why or when regionalism became a dirty word.

As a student of cities, I have observed that urban areas that are able to create regional partnerships to address their most serious challenges tend to be the most prosperous metro areas.

And the metro areas that take a fractured and uncoordinated approach to dealing with their regional issues — say transportation, water and coordinated development — tend to be less efficient and effective in their ability to provide services to people living and working in their regions.

Unfortunately, metro Atlanta today is trending toward the fractured approach rather than the unified and coordinated one.

“The concept of regionalism really is under attack,” said Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning entity for the 10 counties that make up metro Atlanta. “The concept of working together is considered to be a bad thing. I hear it every day — that somehow regionalism is negative.”

It’s hard to know where the sense of unity breaks down.

Is it urban versus suburban? Cities versus counties? Big cities or big counties versus small cities or small counties? Richer areas versus poorer areas? White versus black? Republican versus Democrat? Too many governments? Too many chambers of commerce? No overwhelming unifying force — a galvanizing sports team, a metro-focused governor, a regional identity?

“We are very balkanized,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said at a recent “lessons learned” gathering of attendees who were on the 2013 LINK trip to Houston. “We need to find something that matters enough to the region that we can come together and get rid of balkanization. It didn’t happen with transportation.”

Civic leader Ann Cramer thought Atlanta could create a similar organization to the Houston Partnership to bring all regional business organizations together rather than have isolated efforts.

“A lot of folks are competing with each other,” agreed Kevin Green. “We have so many counties and so many cities. How do you create a structure where we can actually be regional?”

Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said that regionalism tends to go in and out of vogue.

“When resources are short, people don’t embrace regionalism as much,” Bolling said. “With regionalism, by definition, you are taking a longer view.”

A case in point has been the Regional Commission on Homelessness, an entity of eight governments formed in 2003 with a goal of eliminating chronic homelessness within 10 years.

The Commission did create more than 2,400 supportive housing units, build the Gateway Center to better serve the homeless and created several partnerships.

But in May, the City of Atlanta proposed creating its own nonprofit organization to take over the city’s federal and state funding intended to reduce homelessness in the area.

The regional coalition already had begun to fall apart even before the city started to go its own way. DeKalb County announced that it was pulling out so it could have more control over programs for its homeless population.

Such a move is distressing to some who had viewed the regional commission as a model for addressing an issue that does not stop at city or county boundaries.

“The regional commission made great strides and had significant measurable successes to get the counties to work together and made the programs more effective,” Bolling said. “That regional cooperation recently has been fraying around the edges as federal policies have changed and as local governments have chosen to go their own way.”

Milton Little, president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, said that getting the region to work together is more critical than ever because poverty is now as much of a suburban problem as an urban one, and people who need social services are spread out all over the region.

“The cities, the suburbs, the counties are all connected by the economy,” Little said. “To think that one can exist in a healthy way without another just can’t work. Somehow people believe that taking on a regional agenda somehow means ceding control to someone else.”

But really the reverse is true.

“We have got to understand the symbiotic relationship that we are dependent on each other, and we can not live in isolation,” Little said. “It remains hard to build those regional coalitions that are strong and consistently work well, but we have to keep at it.”

Two meetings last week provided hope that metro Atlanta could bring the region together.

The first was when Georgia Sen. Brandon Beach brought together the Transportation Senate Study Committee on Public Transportation for the Metro Atlanta Region.

His goal was simply to see if there could be a way to get the various transit systems in the region to come together as a regional transit system. To make his point, Beach showed a video of how he tried to go from Kennesaw State University to the Gwinnett Arena using transit — an adventure that took him several hours using several different systems.

Case in point, Leithead said that 57 percent of the people who live in Cobb leave the county every day to go to work, so transportation is not a county-by-county issue but a regional one.

The tone of the Senate committee meeting was a positive one — discussing the idea of a single governance structure that had been proposed by the regional players. In the past, the governance issue broken down over the state wanting control without wanting to provide transit funding.

The second encouraging development was an initial presentation of the Atlanta Metro Export Plan — an effort to boost the exports of Atlanta-based companies. The effort is partnership of several organizations that includes the Metro Atlanta Chamber as well at the Georgia Ports Authority and local businesses.

One of the greatest successes of regional cooperation in the past decade has been the North Georgia Water Planning District, which brought together several counties to help them address their water needs.

There is the saying: “Think Globally; Act Locally.”

Well going forward, we need to also say: “Think Regionally; Act Locally.” And just as important is: “Act Regionally; Think Locally.”

In the end, it all comes down to doing what’s best for Atlanta — greater Atlanta.

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. Mark August 27, 2013 9:54 am

    Well said, Maria, but this is a problem that has existed for years.  And those that are anti-regionalism are much more zealous than those that are pro-regionalism.Report

  2. Jim August 27, 2013 11:16 am

    This article nails the central challenge facing Atlanta. How ironic to hear the mayor of one of our newest municipalities, Johns Creek, voicing concern about how our government is “very balkanized” when his town contributed to the recent wave of incorporations that simply added to the problem by creating more layers of government.
    While I love living in Atlanta, the metro’s unwillingness to approach chronic issues with regional solutions is frustrating to me as a citizen and a professional. I’ve lived previously in Houston and Washington, two metros that have tackled these same issues with regional approaches that have fueled the growth of those areas. We must crack the code on this in order for the region to maintain its quality of life and its standing as a business-friendly city.Report

  3. PatrickTMalone August 27, 2013 12:58 pm

    First lets start with the growing mistrust of government and the fact that some of it is well-deserved. Then lets add the conspiracy theory around Agenda 21 fostered by the extreme right wing. Add some extreme left wing thinking that bigger government is better. Finally add the fact that my set of priorities are different then yours and is it any wonder that regionalism is declining?
    Without a restoration of trust in government at its lowest level (cities) you will have no cooperation at the next level (counties) and without cooperation within the counties their is little hope for successful regional initiatives. We have retreated to step #1 which is natural when fear is the driving emotion.Report

  4. atlnative August 27, 2013 2:14 pm

    Sadly, it just goes hand-in-hand with the current atmosphere of greed, and I’ve got mine, you get your own.  Additionally, the emphasis on the short-term has been dominant for a long time now.  No one wants to think past the end of their own nose.  It’s very sad.  I’m a third generation Atlantan, but I no longer want to live here.Report

  5. K Anderson August 27, 2013 2:20 pm

    At this point it looks like without any help from the governor or the state legislature, it’s time for Fulton and Dekalb counties and  MARTA to move forward together. We are a viable region by ourselves.  To really bring attention to the regional needs, let’s get aggressive. Consider the following for starters.  
    1-No more free transfers to MARTA.   Fulton and Dekalb (FDk) cities and counties have invested for over 20 years in our transit.  It’s actually a shining example about what citizens can do locally without state help.
    2-DROP any MARTA board representatives from counties  NOT invested financially in MARTA.  I don’t think Cobb and Gwinnett have representatives from FDk on their transit boards.
    3- Post a sign at the Fulton and Dekalb county line “NO MORE FREE RIDES”.  
    4- MARTA should  consider eliminating the  connections to Gwinnett and Cobb altogether. OR  initiate  transfer charges payable at the gate utilizing the MARTA state-of-the-art fare collection system.could go on and on. 
    As a Fulton county citizen I’m tired of the begging and planning at the  so called “regional” level.
    It’s time for Fulton and Dekalb to pull out of the “regional” planning and go it alone.Report

  6. ScottNAtlanta August 27, 2013 2:50 pm

    PatrickTMalone I am so tired of this generalized “extreme left wing”.  Who is it?  What organizations are they?  My guess is you cant name them because “left wing” is just a buzz word for not agreeing with the right.  Zoning and planning (or lack there of) is what got us into this mess in the first place.  We continue to subsidize the exurbs by spending more on “hot lanes” and traffic congestion which in turn incentivizes further sprawl.  The truth is there is no radical left wing comparable to the right wingnuts.  In numbers or political powerReport

  7. PatrickTMalone August 27, 2013 3:27 pm

    ScottNAtlanta Scott start with ACORN, MoveOn.org, and continue on from there. While I tried to cite both extreme positions as causes for regionalism failure, I suspect the attitude expressed in your reply could also be cited as a cause. There seems to be no middle ground anymore and that is the demise of collaborating for the common good.Report

  8. Alicia Philipp August 28, 2013 4:54 pm

    read the Philanthropy Thought Leader column by Tyronda Minter for a real life view of this region!Report

  9. Wish for MIlton County August 28, 2013 8:24 pm

    To heck with Regionalism as the problem, just look at the disfuctional Fulton County Government.  It is bloated, incompetently run, and it seems very bigoted (it looses every discrimination suit brought against it).
    DeKalb County is totally corrupt. Where are the citizens suppose to go for goverance.
    I have lived in Fulton Conty since 1985.  I have seen the total lack of county services first hand.  I have seen the corruption first hand.  North Fulton county got fed up with non responsive county government. So Sandy Springs finally gets the county off its back (a 20+ year endeavour).  That leads to Johns Creek & Milton.  Finally Chattahochee Hills.  Now there are 13 cities within Fulton County.
    Citizens want a say in how their areas are governed.  How their taxes are spent.  When you are taxed but not adequately respresented, what do you think will happen.
    The Fulton County Commission seems to have no ability to govern “all” the citizens of the county.  They care only for their particular “special interest”.  They has less and less county to manage, yet there is more workers than ever before.
    Same holds true for the Fulton School Board.  DeKalb School district is in shambles.
    So taxpayers are not interested in “regional” issues, when what is right out their doorstep is a total mess.
    Until Atlanta, Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton cleans up their respective “acts” and truly holds people accountable for all the mismanagement & corruption,  I dare say NOONE IS GOING TO WORK WITH THEM REGIONALLY.
    Would You???Report

  10. Joe Frank Harris August 29, 2013 12:40 am

    ScottNAtlanta PatrickTMalone 
    Please educate me as to where we are spending on congestion?  The only place in the whole metro I can think of is the GA 400 interchange.  In the scheme of a 5.5 million person MSA that is nothing.  HOT lanes paid for by the users as toll roads?  You are calling that a subsidy?  What about the $5.00+ in taxpayer dollars used to subsidize each and every MARTA train rider?  Get a grip on reality.
    Zoning and planning got us into this “mess”?  What mess?  Let me guess you want much higher density housing and don’t like suburban living?  You wish Atlanta was a high density city developed during the 18th and 19th city like New York and Boston. 
    Well I hope you live in a high rise condo or apartment while you make these comments.  That would be a start. Oh, but you live in a single family house in the “sensible” in-town neighborhood instead?  Hypocrite.  Let me guess, if the taxpayers would just fund and subsidize a street car near my in-town single family house I would be better than those folks in the exurbs.
    This is I think still a free country.  If folks want to live in a single family house you are not going to get very far my begrudging them.  Folks want to live in dense neighborhoods in town?  Great!  They want transit, cool street cars or trolleys?  Tax and pay for the operating losses themselves.  Folks want to live in the exurbs or suburbs? Great!  Either deal with the traffic for fund your own improvements via gas tax or city/county taxpayer paid improvements.
    A big part of all this yammering about regionalism are folks wanting someone else to pay for their big ideas such as the Beltline which is by no means a regional transportation concept.  Here is an idea- every city and county pay for their own stuff.  They can’t afford their own stuff?  Well how are they going to subsidize someone else’s transport plans?
    Here is a novel concept that is not politically correct- diversity is bad for consensus.  Back in the supposed good ole days a few Atlanta “civic” leaders who were by in large a homogenous group could get in a room and figure out the course for the whole metro area. That was when Atlanta was the size of Charlotte, Nashville or Raleigh and had much less diversity than today.  The Atlanta metro is way too big and complex for those days to return.  Atlanta is much much more diverse today in so many many ways.  The negative side effect of this are competing interests, ideas, visions for the future and lack of consensus.  I doubt this will change as long as we stay a democracy.  Think about the complexity of governing a country like say India.  That is where the Atlanta metro is headed for good and bad.Report

  11. White Whiner August 30, 2013 7:59 am

    ScottNAtlanta People who hate government hate their neighbors. The choice when a government isn’t working to your liking is to change it so it works to your liking or destroy it. Since the government entities you cite are run by black leadership (and you’re white identified) you’d rather just destroy it. You’d rather smash all of the marbles than share any of them. Better to identify as an “Atlantan” than a white person in a seceded subdivision (what is it with white southerners and secession!), then you might contribute to making “Atlanta” better not just hole up in Sandy Springs and throw stones.Report

  12. Burroughston Broch September 1, 2013 9:39 am

    White Whiner
    What nonsense!. Where do I start?
    “You’d rather smash all of the marbles than share any of them.”
    If you live in DeKalb or Fulton and are not black, you have no share in the marbles.
    “Since the government entities you cite are run by black leadership (and you’re white identified) you’d rather just destroy it.”
    Reform has proven ineffective in DeKalb and Fulton, but the tactic is not to destroy the county governments. The tactic is to incorporate cities, take back control of your destiny, and put the bloated county entities on a severe diet. If the voters in mid and south DeKalb and south Fulton want to keep the county governments as they are, then they will have to pay for them.
    “People who hate government hate their neighbors.”
    I like my neighbors but hate DeKalb County government. That disproves your mindless generalization.Report

  13. K Anderson November 3, 2013 1:22 pm

    Burroughston Broch White Whiner 
    I generally say join together and make things work.  Fulton and Dekalb has wasted so much time and effort trying to convince the outliers to join with us.  Probably about 30 years worth. It’s time to focus our resources .on ourselves.  We have transit, Fulton-Dekalb Hospital, the best universities, etc.  Let’s make Fulton-Dekalb BEST in class.If you want your local government changed, get involved.  We have to accept reality and work to continually improve ourselves.  If the other couty governments and citizens want to continually stick their head in the sand, more power to them!Report


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