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Atlanta is losing its way

Larry Gellerstedt, retired CEO of Cousins Properties, and Egbert Perry, CEO of the Integral Group,discuss the Atlanta Way after the Sept. 20th meeting of the Rotary Club of Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

Two veteran Atlanta business leaders – one white and one black – are concerned Atlanta is losing its way.

That is a stark contrast to Atlanta’s rose-colored past of what has been called “The Atlanta Way.” In short, the Atlanta Way can be defined as a community galvanizes its diverse leaders to tackle the city’s biggest challenges.

At a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, two dear friends shared their perspectives of the past and their hopes for the future.

Larry Gellerstedt, an Atlanta native, is the retired CEO of Cousins Properties who has chaired every major local civic and business organization over the years.

Egbert Perry, a native of the island of Antigua, is the founder and CEO of the Integral Group, a transformative urban developer.

Both got to know each other in 1980 when Perry was working with the H.J. Russell & Co. construction firm, and Gellerstedt with his father – Lawrence Gellerstedt Jr. – at Beers Construction.

“He was known as ‘Little Larry,’ Perry said with a smile.

“What has happened over the past 40 years, Egbert and I have developed as close to a personal friendship as I’ve had in my life,” Gellerstedt said.

Larry Gellerstedt, retired CEO of Cousins Properties, and Egbert Perry, CEO of the Integral Group,discuss the Atlanta Way at the Sept. 20th meeting of the Rotary Club of Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

And their bond has been both professional and personal. When Gellerstedt was out of work after dealing with depression and mental illness, it was Perry who offered him a job as a top executive of the Integral Group.

“When I joined Integral, I was the only white guy in the firm,” Gellerstedt said. “Race is a tough topic to talk about.”

But that was part of the Atlanta Way – to work through racial differences to keep the city moving forward.

“Does Atlanta get the Olympics without the civil rights movement? Hell no!” Gellerstedt said.

And then he quickly added: “There’s a lot left unfinished.”

Perry was more direct.

“I see the world as a world that really sucks for Black people. It wasn’t accidental. It was intentional,” Perry said of the consequences of slavery. “We need to understand the past and shape the world for tomorrow.”

Integral

Egbert Perry speaks at the Integral’s 25th anniversary celebration on Oct. 18 (Special: Integral)

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a willingness by the business and civic community to address the tough issues of the day with a goal of making Atlanta a shining city on the hill compared to its Southern counterparts.

“Here was a city that was willing to join hands,” Perry said. “We have lost our way in terms of coming together to build a wholesome nurturing community.”

Gellerstedt agreed. “We’ve got some hard work to do,” he said.

Perry spelled it out saying that in the United States, poverty is criminalized.

“That’s the challenge we have. You have to rebuild all the communities that we have,” Perry said. “When I told Larry I’m going to change urban America, what did you call me?”

“Communist,” Gellerstedt responded.

Later he added: “What Egbert did when I called him a Communist, he tackled Techwood Homes.” That was the oldest public housing community in the country, which the Integral Group redeveloped into a mixed-income community called Centennial Place.

“That changed the trajectory of people in public housing,” Gellerstedt said.

ACP Bottoms Duriya Gellerstedt

Larry Gellerstedt stands between Duriya Farooqui and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms after ACP’s board meeting in March 2018 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“We wanted to make sure everybody had a shot at life,” Perry said. “The people we write off, we are going to meet them in a dark alley at night. There’s no place that’s doing it well. I do feel we are losing our way. We need the energy to realize that grand vision. We need to find our north star. We have long-term problems, and we have short-term problems.”

Part of the problem is that leadership in Atlanta has changed with a much more transitory business community with many leaders running global companies.

“We haven’t been intentional about teaching what the Atlanta Way is all about,” Gellerstedt said. “Atlanta is a larger city. It’s a much more complex city and region.”

It reminded me of conversations I had years ago with Larry’s father, the late Lawrence Gellerstedt Jr. “When a new executive comes to town, a group of business leaders goes to welcome the CEO and let them know that in Atlanta you not only have to pay your office rent; you have to pay your civic rent.”

Today, several of the civic organizations that once kept the city on track have faded away. There was the Atlanta Action Forum, a group of Black and white business leaders who meant monthly to hash out their differences and find common ground. And there was the board of the Commerce Club, where top leaders met monthly to focus on the issues facing the region.

In follow up conversations with both, Gellerstedt and Perry said there is a void.

Larry Gellerstedt, retired CEO of Cousins Properties, and Egbert Perry, CEO of the Integral Group,discuss the Atlanta Way after the Sept. 20th meeting of the Rotary Club of Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“There’s no vision for the city as a whole,” Perry said. “I fundamentally believe people are looking to be a part of something. We need a moonshot. We need servant leaders – people who are going into office to serve.”

Gellerstedt there’s a need to call the community together for Atlanta’s next moonshot, which could be around the issues of equality and equity.

But he quickly added it will be up to the current and new generation of leaders to galvanize around that north star.

“We have got to be intentional in telling the emerging leaders in Atlanta that the ball is in your court,” Gellerstedt said. “Here is what has been done in the past. Now it’s up to you. The future of the region rides on the new generation of leaders. They need to take ownership of the Atlanta Way.”

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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.

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7 Comments

  1. Julie Ralston September 28, 2021 10:36 am

    I agree with these two gentlemen that there needs to be a big/fresh vision for our city and region. I would encourage the Atlanta Regional Commission to re-engage the Millennial Advisory Panel from a few years ago, composed of our region’s most outstanding young thinkers and leaders. Several are now serving in positions of influential leadership on the Atlanta City Council, Georgia legislature and non-profit/business positions. I know they are incredibly committed to our region’s success and am not sure they are convening in any other way. Others should be added to this group. It’s their future and I trust it in their hands. We must draw upon our best and brightest and let them run with it.Report

    Reply
    1. Michael Baxter October 2, 2021 11:29 am

      This is a great place to start. Perhaps a generational version of Atlanta Action Forum — senior leaders and young leaders.Report

      Reply
  2. Vivian Irby September 29, 2021 3:26 am

    Articles like this should be page 1! We must learn to work and live together…
    Servant leaders are hard to find with so much corruption in politics!! It’s sad that people love money and animals more than people and communiy!Report

    Reply
  3. Mamie Jones September 29, 2021 3:28 am

    Great insight. Atlanta is different. We had leaders who really were intentional about the direction of growth and concerned about the entire landscape of our city. Not anymore. Even our leaders have left the room.Report

    Reply
  4. Magda Zakrzewski September 29, 2021 7:07 am

    So glad Egbert and Larry are so successful and doing well. It’s fine to say there should be a new vision and a North Star. But let’s define the North Star. Have been away from Atlanta for a few years and back now am appalled by the money culture and the growth culture. Atlanta has always been about trees. A city in a forest. But now I see high rise buildings instead of trees. So let’s define the North Star.Report

    Reply
  5. Andy Rease September 29, 2021 2:57 pm

    I read this article about The Atlanta way it is intriguing to me that the two people that are basically on their way out talk about the Atlanta way which I think is a very good thing but as a again I cannot speak for my anyone else but I can say the financial institution here in Atlanta and around the United States has given up on entrepreneurs that look like me so therefore how can you move forward, how can you move in a position to do things if you don’t have the support of the financial institutions here in Atlanta and do not have the support of the more established business men and women in this city. I have been working for years here in Atlanta and it’s been the same thing, you got to be apart of the good old boys clubs. And frankly I just don’t fit that description.Report

    Reply
  6. Kenneth S Robinson September 29, 2021 6:34 pm

    I just read this article, Mrs. Saporta I concur with what’s being done I also believe as a native atlantan getting input from the communities involved could be innovative and we may be surprised at what could transpire after all we all love Atlanta and want to see a city to busy to hate thrive into the future for all her people from all walks of life.Report

    Reply

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