Atlanta – be proactive, not reactive – in building airport relationships
By Maria Saporta
The city of Atlanta dodged a bullet when the 2019 state legislature failed to pass a bill to either takeover Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport or to create a legislative oversight committee to oversee the airport’s operations.
Even Gov. Brian Kemp, in comments before the Rotary Club of Atlanta on April 8, seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when asked about the airport issue..
“Sometimes you can be thankful as Georgians that nothing actually happened,” Kemp said. “That is a very important issue, not only for this city, but for this state. And we have to be very cautious about it.”
But Kemp also had some advice for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
“Where we are today gives the mayor a great opportunity to continue to expand confidence to the people in this city, and to the lawmakers, about some of the things that have gone on in the airport in the past,” Kemp said. “I feel certain that she will take advantage of the opportunity, and we will reassess where we are next year.”
That is solid advice.
First and foremost, Mayor Bottoms and the entire city administration must do everything they can to make sure decisions on contracting and concessions at the airport are squeaky clean and free of political patronage.
There is little Bottoms can do about what might have transpired in the previous administration, and we should not be surprised if the federal investigation into corruption at City Hall during the tenure of Mayor Kasim Reed surfaces more misdeeds. That will only provide more fodder to state legislators wanting to take over the airport.
So Bottoms must do all she can to reassure people both internally and externally that the city has cleaned up its act.
But that’s only the beginning. The mayor must also build bridges to make sure the city is immune from pressure by legislators to have the state takeover the city-owned airport.
One way to build bridges would be for the mayor and the city to build a big tent and invite stakeholders of the airport to form a council or commission to meet regularly to exchange information and ideas.
Those entities could include representatives from Clayton County, College Park and Aerotropolis – as well as other local government entities.
The mayor, depending on how strategic she might want to be, could also invite several key state officials to the table, such as the commissioner of economic development and the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation. She also might invite Gov. Kemp, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan to the table or have them designate a representative.
It also would make sense to include representatives of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce as well as the Atlanta Committee for Progress.
The goal would be for the city to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships. It would be a way for the city of Atlanta to reach out to people and institutions that have a vested interest in the success of Hartsfield-Jackson to share their ideas and to hear about what’s underway at the airport.
As I see it, this would not be a governing body or an oversight group. Instead it would provide a regular opportunity to open up the lines of communication between the city of Atlanta, the airport and the myriad of constituencies that care about the success of Hartsfield-Jackson.
In short, it would be a way for the city of Atlanta to reinforce the fact that it owns the airport yet it also realizes that Hartsfield-Jackson has a significant impact on communities beyond the city limits and includes the entire Atlanta region as well as the state of Georgia.
The entity could be modeled after the Atlanta Committee for Progress or the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership – entities that invite leaders to sit around the table and be a supportive group for the city and the Atlanta BeltLine respectively.
Providing a formal entity where strategic relationships can be formed over time would weaken the arguments for a state takeover or oversight committee. It would be a way of extending a welcoming gesture of inclusion without giving up control. The city and the airport would benefit by having more players on the inside as allies rather than on the outside as critics.
Few people realize the success Hartsfield-Jackson enjoys as the busiest and most efficient airport in the world. And we need to do all we can to make sure it remains as one of our state’s strongest assets.
Over the years, some city and airport leaders have made their own outreach efforts.
I remember when Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was first elected. She called up Crandle Bray, then chairman of the Clayton County Commission, and asked if she could come visit him. He was stunned that an Atlanta mayor had reached out to him and offered to meet in his office.
During the tenure of George Berry as Atlanta’s airport general manager, there were regular meetings with the mayors of College Park, Hapeville and East Point as well as Clayton County officials (the airport actually is based in Clayton).
No matter what, the city should do all it can to be pro-active rather than reactive in how it presents its operations of the airport to the state and other constituencies.
Mayor Bottoms and airport officials should design a “friend-building” approach that works best for them – be it a formal airport partnership or informal relationships with the various stakeholders.
Because we know legislation for a state takeover of the airport will resurface in 2020, the biggest mistake would be for the city to do nothing at all.