By Guest Columnist JOHN AHMANN, principal of Ahmann Inc., a public policy consulting firm and an Atlanta dreamer
I love Atlanta. Born at Grady Hospital, and growing up in Druid Hills/Candler Park area at a time many were leaving the City, to now witness the ascendant trajectory of the City with its influx of population and businesses, is energizing and deeply gratifying because the hard work of so many leaders through the years has been validated.
I am inspired by Atlanta because she re-images herself but stays true to her core DNA. Atlanta, the railroad capital of the 1800’s, now has the world’s busiest passenger airport, and is headquarters to Delta Air Lines, one of the world’s greatest airline companies – an industry that those who invented railroads could not even conceive.
Atlanta, the commercial capital of the Confederacy that later became the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who changed the country by practicing a rare form of courage called non-violence based on his faith in redemptive love and was the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35. And in spite of regular death threats, kept going until he was assassinated before even reaching 40.
What is this DNA to me? I have always sensed it – it drew me back after living away for six years in 1993, but has taken a long time to decode it. And I think fundamentally it is that Atlanta is home to dreamers who dream big – those who see and embrace a future many do not see or are scared to embrace.
I think of the courage of Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., who was the lone Southern white elected official who testified in support of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.
I think of Billy Payne who had the audacity to dream that Atlanta could claim the 1996 Olympic Games, the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games that the world expected to go to its birthplace – Athens, Greece. Billy was not chased out of Atlanta when he had this dream but was embraced by then Mayor Andy Young (and former UN Ambassador) who flew the world with him.
Nowadays we call these dreamers “entrepreneurs.” And Atlanta wins when it embraces its entrepreneurs, whether political, faith, social or business. Sometimes they fail, but other times they transform industries – think Ted Turner and CNN, Arthur M. Blank/ Bernie Marcus and the Home Depot and Robert Woodruff and the Coca-Cola Company. And do not forget Alonzo Herndon, a former slave who became Atlanta’s first black millionaire by creating an insurance product and a company that still stands today – Atlanta Life.
And look now to the Atlanta BeltLine, the very manifestation of that DNA because it was the vision of an unknown graduate student at Georgia Tech – Ryan Gravel – a vision that is now changing Atlanta. He was not laughed out of town but embraced by then Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard and then Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (Atlanta’s first female mayor) who led the charge to create a visionary planning district and local financing mechanism, aided by another Atlanta entrepreneur, Ray Weeks.
And who is the Atlanta BeltLine’s largest philanthropic investor? James C. Kennedy, another brilliant entrepreneur whose vision and execution transformed Cox Enterprises. Atlanta just broke ground on the 3.2 mile Atlanta BeltLine’s Westside Trail in large part thanks to his and his company’s $5 million philanthropic gift that helped to enable the local match to an $18 million federal grant won by Mayor Kasim Reed.
And I have seen another important strand in this DNA – justice, redemption, embrace of diversity. I think of John Portman and Charlie Loudermilk, leading white businessmen who embraced newly elected Mayor Andy Young at a time too many did not.
Their recent matching gifts of $250,000 ensured the capital campaign for the Westside Trail hit $10M in time to meet the requirements of the federal award. And they did it because the trail will connect a part of southwest Atlanta that many living there assumed would never connect to the Atlanta that has the widely popular Eastside Trail. Portman and Loudermilk are two great Atlanta entrepreneurs who created and led transformational companies.
Which brings me to another inspirational entrepreneur who I have never even met. Tyler Perry.
Tyler Perry could have chosen many cities for what will be one of the world’s largest independent film studios. But he did not. Tyler Perry, who says that at one point in his life he attempted suicide to escape beatings by his father, could have given up, but he did not. Tyler Perry, a creative genius, is changing the balance of power for African Americans working in film as his studio is one of the largest independent studios in the world.
Tyler Perry, who according to news reports “made more African-American millionaires than all the major networks combined,” chose to locate one of the world’s largest independent film studios in an area of Atlanta sorely in need of vision, of jobs, of justice.
And true to the Atlanta way, Tyler Perry has been embraced by another entrepreur – Mayor Reed, who dreamed of becoming mayor after being inspired by Ambassador Young, and was first elected mayor before reaching age 40 by a mere 714 votes.
Mayor Reed helped deliver U.S. President Barack Obama’s support of the Savannah Port in a state that twice voted against him. And last time I checked, Mayor Reed was not elected Mayor of Savannah, but embraced what this meant for the future by working collaboratively with Gov. Nathan Deal, who is from the opposite political party.
I know many have criticized the mayor’s support of Tyler Perry purchasing a large portion of Ft. McPherson, even though no other cash offers have shown up like Perry’s, not to mention the fact it’s Perry. I’ll bet a few cities would have paid him to show up.
Perry’s company is an a high growth industry – filmed entertainment content. Not a bad place for Atlanta to be parked and at a time many are concerned about the loss of locally owned company headquarters in Atlanta. But I have seen this pattern before, and I am going to bet on the dreamers. And my bet is that 10 or 15 years from today, opportunity will have arisen from this pairing we cannot even imagine.
Some other Atlanta dreamer, one we cannot predict, may be growing up in Mechanicsville whose mother has a job because of Tyler Perry Studios – this dreamer will create an industry the rest of us cannot even see, or write a bestselling book that changes lives, or maybe become another Atlanta winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
And so I say, Go Tyler. Go Mayor Reed. And thank you because Atlanta has believed in me, and I have had the opportunity to be a part of things I only dreamed when I was young.