By Maria Saporta
At first glance, one might question why 110 leaders from metro Atlanta would pick Houston, Texas as the city to study for its 17th annual LINK trip from May 15 to May 18.
But consider the following facts.
Forbes has named Houston, Texas as the “coolest” city to live in the United States. Atlanta didn’t make the top 20 list.
Between 2007 and 2012, Houston gained nearly 175,000 new jobs while Atlanta lost 178,000 during that same period.
Houston is the fifth largest metro area in the United States compared to metro Atlanta, which is ninth.
Houston has 25 Fortune 500 companies based in the Houston MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area); compared to 12 in the Atlanta MSA. That means that Houston, not Atlanta, actually ranks third among cities with the largest concentration of Fortune 500 company headquarters — after New York City (67) and Chicago (29).
And while the 10-county metro Atlanta region decisively defeated a regional one-percent transportation sales tax in 2012, Houston voters went to the polls in November and resoundingly decided to invest in their region’s future.
They approved $410 million in bond initiatives that will go toward libraries, health and safety facilities, parks, bayous, recreation centers as well as 150 miles of connected trails and linear parks along the Bayou Greenway Initiative.
Also, the Atlanta region is marketing itself as a biotechnology center and as a logistics hub. But, again, Houston is well positioned in both of those sectors.
Houston has more than 160 biotechnology companies and academic partnerships, more than 75 hospitals and health clinics, and some of the nation’s top research facilities. In 2008, Houston had the 10th highest rating in the world for the number of patents by a city.
When it comes to logistics, there is the Port of Houston as well as three other seaports in the region, two major passenger/air cargo airports, 3,700 lane miles of freeways and 14 mainline railroad tracks.
“There’s a lot more to their economy than oil and energy,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, which organizes the annual LINK trip. “Because of its central location in the country, it is a huge logistics center. It also has many corporate relocations.”
Hooker said one area where Houston is quite different than Atlanta is with local governance. The City of Houston has a population has about 2 million residents of the metro area’s 6 million residents — representing a powerful third of region.
By comparison, the City of Atlanta only has about 500,000 residents of a metro area of about 5 million people — roughly 10 percent of the population.
One area Atlanta leaders can explore is what impact the two different governance styles have on each city’s regional mindset and on each city’s ability to address regional issues.
Houston leaders also say that their region is one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse, in the United States. Because of its proximity to the Mexican border, immigration issues are top-of-mind in Texas.
Atlantans also might be surprised to find that Houston is a vibrant center for arts and cultural. Its Museum District has 19 museums located within a 1.5 mile radius of the Mecom Fountain in Hermann Park.
It also has a 17-block Theatre district downtown with nine major performing arts organizations and many smaller ones that perform in four venues.
The Houston Arts Alliance, a nonprofit arts organization, distributes #3 million in grants to about 220 nonprofit arts organizations and arts. It also manages the city’s civic arts collection of 450 pieces as well as new acquisitions.
Rob LeBeau, ARC’s section manager in the Community Development Division who has been responsible for putting together the LINK trip, said another area of focus will be the Texas Medical Center — considered the largest medical center in the world. It serves as an umbrella organization for all the medical facilities and institutions in the region — providing an economic draw for talent.
Also, on the first evening of the trip. Houston Mayor Annise Parker will address the LINK delegation. Parker is the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did help arrange for Parker to address the LINK delegation, but he will not be able to attend this year. It is the first LINK trip he will have missed since being elected mayor.
The mayor’s spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs said Reed worked to make it a success by connecting the organizers with Parker, but unfortunately could not make it this year.
“Mayor Reed is committed to working with regional leaders on vital issues that affect the metropolitan Atlanta area, such as transportation and infrastructure,” Jacobs wrote in an email.
Several other leaders, however, will attend, including DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis; Cherokee County Chairman Buzz Ahrens; Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee; Gwinnett County Chair Charlotte Nash; Rockdale County Chairman Richard Oden; Clayton County Chairman Jeffrey Turner; Douglas County Chairman Tom Worthan and Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell.
Among some other notables attending this year are: Georgia State Rep. Stacey Abrams; Leona Barr-Davenport, president and CEO of the Atlanta Business League; Georgia State University President Mark Becker; Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance; Woodruff Arts Center CEO Virginia Hepner; MARTA CEO Keith Parker; and Tim Hynes, president of Clayton State University.
A few other notable absences: Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber (trip conflicts with his executive committee meeting); Fulton County Chairman John Eaves; Henry County Chairman Tommy Smith; Fayette County Chairman Steve Brown; representatives of major philanthropic foundations; other state legislators and state government leaders.
Here is a chronological list of all the previous Atlanta LINK cities:
Denver – 1997
Seattle – 1998
Dallas – 1999
Cleveland – 2000
San Diego – 2001
Chicago – 2002
San Francisco – 2003
Boston – 2004
Portland – 2005
Miami – 2006
Vancouver – 2007
Denver – 2008
Minneapolis-St. Paul – 2009
Phoenix – 2010
Seattle – 2011
Baltimore/Washington, D.C. — 2012
Houston — 2013
Note to readers: Please stay tuned to SaportaReport and the Atlanta Business Chronicle website during May 15 and May 18 for regular updates of the LINK trip. I will have concluding columns after I return.