Atlanta Committee for Progress reflecting on its role under new mayor
By Maria Saporta
The Atlanta Committee for Progress — the high-powered blue-ribbon group that advises the mayor of Atlanta — is at a crossroads.
First and foremost, a new mayor will take office in January, and unlike former transitions of power at City Hall, the Atlanta Committee for Progress did not meet with the two candidates in the run-off — Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens.
Update: Andre Dickens was elected the next mayor of Atlanta on Tuesday night.
Also, Shan Cooper, ACP’s executive director, has announced her retirement by the end of the year – leaving open the question of who will coordinate the organization and support the new mayor.
ACP also reflects changes in Atlanta’s business and civic sector. The current board chair is Alex Taylor, CEO of Cox Enterprises; and the chair-elect is Ryan Marshall, CEO of the Pulte Group.
Neither of those executives has chaired any of the city’s civic organizations, so they don’t have institutional knowledge of how ACP has functioned during previous transitions of leadership at City Hall. Despite several attempts, neither Taylor nor Marshall was available to comment for this column.
The Atlanta Committee for Progress was launched by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin in 2003, early in her first term as mayor.
Franklin leveraged the powerful leaders around ACP’s table to launch the Atlanta BeltLine, garner support to end chronic homelessness and make massive improvements to the city’s water and sewer infrastructure.
Under Franklin’s leadership, ACP was all about big ideas and big initiatives. Business and civic leaders, many of whom had been shunned by the previous mayor Bill Campbell, welcomed an opportunity to serve the city.
In interviews (both on and off-the-record) with a host of leaders who have worked with ACP over the years, several themes emerged.
The impact of ACP depends on the commitment of both the mayor and the board members as well as the skills of the executive director.
As it is currently structured, ACP’s leadership has been subservient to the mayor of Atlanta rather than letting the high-powered executives on its board set the agenda. So, ACP has only been as effective as whoever is the mayor.
Several people interviewed said it’s time for ACP to become slightly more autonomous – and to broaden its purview beyond City Hall so it can also support other Atlanta entities.
All those interviewed said it was vital for the new mayor to be an integral part of ACP, but the mayor should not control the agenda or determine what is discussed at board meetings. Rather, the mayor should work with the ACP chair to present the administration’s priorities and solicit board members’ support for those initiatives.
Currently, ACP arguably has the greatest horsepower of any organization in Atlanta based on its board members, which most of the region’s top CEOs, university presidents and other key civic leaders.
Other organizations that once provided gathering places for Atlanta’s top leaders have either faded away or changed their priorities.
The Commerce Club board, which used to be the place where top leaders would gather monthly to talk about the most important issues of the day, has all but disappeared from the scene.
The Atlanta Action Forum was a venue formed in 1971 where top white and Black business leaders worked through their differences, developing relationships that helped the city navigate through shifts in power at City Hall and the region. The Forum fell apart in the late 1990s.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber once served as the entity where Atlanta business leaders would weigh in on critical issues facing the City of Atlanta. But, in the late 1990s, the Chamber decided to focus on regional issues as well as its relationship with the state.
In fact, when Franklin first envisioned ACP, she approached the Metro Atlanta Chamber to see if it would house the new entity. But she was told the Chamber did not want to focus on just the City of Atlanta.
As a result, ACP emerged as a leading civic entity to work on City of Atlanta issues. Some people even referred to it as the City of Atlanta’s Chamber of Commerce.
John Ahmann served as ACP’s executive director from 2006 to 2016 bridging the administrations of Mayor Franklin and Mayor Kasim Reed. Ahmann left ACP to become president and CEO of the Westside Future Fund, an ACP initiative promoted by Reed.
“During my tenure at ACP, it was a really valuable forum to solve pressing city issues that required a public-private partnership,” Ahmann said in a phone interview.
When asked about what should happen to ACP going forward, Ahmann said: “My hope is that whoever the next mayor is would continue that history. The business community might not have longstanding relationships with the candidates (Moore and Dickens). ACP is a great way for the mayor and the business-civic community to build those trusting relationships.”
Everyone interviewed saw the value in having a rejuvenated ACP.
Among them was A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress and one of the founding members of ACP.
“Given the challenges the city faces, having the wisdom of the folks who are at the ACP table is greatly needed to bring new ideas and resources to solve our key issues,” Robinson said. “The group can be helpful in many different areas, but in order to be effective, they need to be heard.”
Robinson also envisioned a broader role for ACP. “The issues of the city are complex,” he said. “ACP should recognize they need to help bring others to the table – the Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County.”
Duriya Farooqui served as ACP’s executive director from 2016 to 2018. She was familiar with ACP because she joined the City of Atlanta in 2007 and became its chief operating officer before leaving in 2013 to join Bain Consulting.
“The ACP is a coalition really like no other – some 40 chief executives give their time, resources and leadership to collaborate on solving critical challenges for our city,” Farooqui said.
She cited a dozen ways ACP had contributed to the city – helping secure the Martin Luther King Jr. papers, proposing pension reform, creating Engage Ventures and the Center for Workforce Innovation as well as stepping in to help the city after a cybersecurity attack occurred.
“The quality of expertise and consulting the ACP has often supported would have been unaffordable for the city,” she said.
Both Ahmann and Farooqui said that during previous open mayoral elections, the board would meet with the leading candidates, present ACP’s strategic plan and ask how they envisioned working with the organization.
But that did not happen during this election cycle. So, for last week’s column, I asked both Moore and Dickens how they would work with ACP. Both pledged to work with ACP.
Farooqui said that going forward, ACP should continue to “fit everyone around a boardroom table” to encourage maximum participation. She also believes it could engage more with Atlanta’s public schools and the Atlanta Housing Authority. But having the mayor on board is key.
“Ultimately ACP members want a mayor to be successful in leading our city once elected,” Farooqui said.
Perhaps no one has the in-depth perspective of ACP as Larry Gellerstedt, retired CEO of Cousins Properties. Gellerstedt has held virtually every major civic role in Atlanta, including chairing ACP during the transition of Mayor Reed to Mayor Bottoms. He ended up co-chairing Bottoms’ transition team, and ACP was integral in helping coordinate searches for her cabinet.
“That was a high-water mark for ACP,” Gellerstedt said of that transition. But since then, that several ACP members “haven’t been uniformly happy” with the organization.
“I do know ACP is doing some reflection,” said Gellerstedt, adding some board members would like it to be more proactive. “ACP has been more reactive to the mayor’s agenda” rather than setting its own agenda.
Case in point was ACP’s handling of the Buckhead City efforts. Dave Stockert, chair of the Buckhead Coalition, which opposes Buckhead splitting off from the City of Atlanta, made a presentation to ACP’s board, but discussion stopped when it became obvious that Bottoms was uncomfortable with criticism about how the city was addressing the crime problem in Buckhead. As a result, ACP has barely weighed in on one of the most volatile issues to face Atlanta in years.
“The business community needs one place where it can come together to deal with City of Atlanta issues,” said Gellerstedt, who went off the board after retiring from Cousins. “I hope ACP leaderswill use this time to take a deep breath and reflect on their strategic approach on what their role should be.”
Shirley Franklin, in a text exchange, said she had met with the incoming ACP chairman by phone a few weeks ago.
“He seems to be interested in gathering info and ideas for the next stage of ACP,” Franklin wrote. “Not sure I have any particular insight as I haven’t been close enough to ACP in 12 years.”
During this period of unprecedented transition, ACP’s future is undefined and uncertain. For ACP to work, the new mayor will need to work closely with the board, and the board needs to find the right person to serve as its next executive director.
If history is our guide, the Atlanta Committee for Progress works best when it partners with an inspirational mayor who wants to make a constructive impact on our city. Hopefully, the new mayor in partnership with business and civic leaders will be able to rejuvenate ACP to its former glory.
Editor’s note: This column will be updated on Dec. 1 after the results of the Nov. 30 run-off election.