It is a pleasure to watch Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s courtship with leaders from around the state.
As a former state senator and representative, this is familiar territory for Reed. But since he’s become mayor, he has perfected the message — as goes Atlanta, so goes Georgia; and as goes Georgia, so goes Atlanta.
The latest venue for Reed’s deepening relationship with state leaders was at the quarterly board meeting of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, held on March 31 on the Georgia Tech campus.
Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson welcomed Reed and the board — which that day was composed of all white males (most from outside metro Atlanta: 15 out of 22). In all fairness, the board does have one woman and one African-American — Harriette Watkins of Fairburn — but she was not present.
But Reed, an African-American mayor, did not seem to notice. Instead, he started off by saying: “We really have special people in this state.” He then went on to mention House Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Gov. Nathan Deal and former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
(Unfortunately, the mayor has not been quite as generous when it comes to a few of Atlanta’s top leaders, but more on that later).
In talking to state leaders, Reed made the case for why metro Atlanta is so vital to the state’s economic interests. The metro area is becoming one of the eight megaregions in the country. And it is a region where “we’ve had strong leadership and a very good partnership” for many years, culminating with the 1996 Summer Olympic Games when “we left other folks in the dust,” Reed said.
For decades, other cities, such as Dallas and Charlotte, have compared themselves to Atlanta, which has enjoyed the reputation of being the capital of the Southeast.
But now, those cities combined with Nashville and other Southern cities, are quick to point to metro Atlanta’s weaknesses, including the lack of coordination between the state and its capital city.
“Atlanta was the economic generator,” Reed said. “Political control was deployed outside of I-285. There were thee intramural games, back and forth, rural folks and urban folks. I really don’t think we can afford that anymore. We aren’t doing so well, leading so well to allow folks to play these games.”
Reed said he has built a bridge between City Hall and the State Capitol, which are located diagonally across the street from each other.
“What I want you to know is that you have a partner that’s willing and able,” Reed said. “You have a mayor who believes in regionalism.”
Then Reed held up the City of Denver as a model for the Atlanta region. The seven-county metro Denver area has found a way to work together in paying for transportation, arts and culture as well as sports facilities.
“If anything positive happens in the region, it’s good for the region and the state,” Reed said. “They’ve done this for transportation and light rail, and they’re doing it with the arts.”
The regional transportation sales tax could be part of “Georgia’s second act,” Reed said. “Having the leading airport on planet earth makes you strong. No matter where you are in the state of Georgia, folks have got to be able to get to you.”
But Reed then said “we have aged a bit,” and we’ll have to work harder to remain competitive.
“The relationship that we are trying to build is special,” Reed said. “I spend a lot of time trying to deliver for the Georgia Ports. We have a Democratic president, a Democratic administration and Democrat U.S. Senate.”
So the fact that he is a Democrat, Reed said he can reach out to federal leaders in a way that the Republican leaders in Georgia can not.
“The reason I’m going to stay with trying to get money for the Savannah Port, I believe it will create a second dynamic center in the state of Georgia that’s unparalleled,” Reed said. “Having a second dynamic center that’s equal to Hartsfield is all about Atlanta…. When we are done, our region is going to be the logistics hub for the Western hemisphere.”
If Atlanta and Georgia “can do it in a fashion where we are real partners, there’s no peer in the Southeast that will be able to keep up with us,” Reed said. “The future is having the two dynamos — the State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta — working together. I’m ready to play. Anyone who wins by 714 votes you know loves to compete.”
Reed also said that Atlanta is in a fiscal position to help the state sweeten economic development incentives when a company is considering investing in the city.
He then repeated one of his favorite refrains. When he took office, the city only had $7.5 million in reserves. Today, it has $58 million in reserves, and Reed projects it will have $77 million in the next fiscal year.
Reed said he’s been able to build those reserves, hire more police officers and invest in the Centers for Hope — all without a tax increase.
But that storyline is disingenuous. What the mayor fails to mention is that the reason the city’s financial picture is so strong is because his predecessor — former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin — led the difficult fight to pass a needed property tax increase six months before he took office.
By the way, Franklin also reached out to regional leaders — building unprecedented relations between the city and suburbs — while she was mayor.
As impressed as I am with Reed, his inability to share credit with his mentor and thank her for nurturing his political career is disappointing. He actually would be viewed as a stronger leader if he could give credit where credit is due.
Where Reed undeniably has been breaking new ground has been in building a strong relationship between the city and the state — strongest in decades.
And Reed is strategic in his message. He tells state leaders that Atlanta has been able to receive $134 million in “direct federal appropriations” since he’s been mayor.
“We are going to extend those relations statewide,” Reed told board members of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “I believe the future — our winning — is tied inextricably to Atlanta and Georgia. At some point, people are going to be writing about us and how well we have managed through times that stink.”
If Reed can get the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia working in concert with each other, he really will have changed the economic and political equation for all of us.