Atlanta must not lose its historical advantage of being a city willing to dream

To aspire or not to aspire. That is the question facing the City of Atlanta today.

Historically, Atlanta has always been an aspirational city. Back in the late 1800s, it willed itself to be the capital of the New South by putting on national events, such as the Cotton States Exposition in 1895.

The following century, Atlanta willed itself to be the “world’s next great city” or the “city too busy to hate.” It also built what is now the world’s busiest airport. And it aspired to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

In short, Atlanta is a city that has always aspired to be something grander than the city it has been. And then it has had to live up to its own hype by turning its dreams into reality.

But during our most recent mayoral election, none of the candidates offered an aspirational vision. Instead, they focused on all the problems facing the city — from budget shortfalls to underfunded pensions to our public safety shortcomings.

Now that he has been elected the new mayor of the City of Atlanta, Kasim Reed is staying on message talking primarily about the budget, pensions and public safety.

In several speeches during the past couple of months, Reed has repeated this theme:

“You will not hear me launch a whole new series of initiatives,” Reed told people attending Park Pride’s recent 9th Annual Parks & Greenspace Conference.

At the annual breakfast of Central Atlanta Progress, Reed told the room full of business and civic leaders that he would support funding for the Peachtree Corridor, a new Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert hall for the Woodruff Arts Center, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Atlanta Beltline.

“What you will not see are many new initiatives from me,” the mayor told those attending CAP’s breakfast. “I would rather do a smaller number of things very well. I don’t believe in mediocrity, and I don’t want any part of it. It may not be me who started them, but I’m going to be the man who will get it done.”

(But Reed never mentions which projects and initiatives he will cut from the city’s agenda list).

Reed also is fond of saying that that the 25-year Beltline redevelopment project should be done in 10 years rather than 25. And yet it is unrealistic to put an end date to many of these initiatives. Cities continually evolve. The Beltline may never be finished, and that should not be our end goal.

Reed’s streamlined approach is distinctly different than the one of his predecessor — former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin — especially after her first couple of years facing a budget crisis and having to rebuild the city’s sewers.

The longer she was mayor, Franklin spent increasingly more time and energy envisioning the Atlanta of 50 years from now.

As Reed is able to lasso control of the city’s budget challenges, he too could focus his energies on creating a vision for the city of the future, much in the same way that Franklin was able to do.

In a keynote address to Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture, Franklin shared her views in a speech titled: “Imagining a Better Future.”

Although I wasn’t able to attend her talk, she sent me her prepared remarks. In these excerpts, she defined her leadership style, one that I believe is different from Reed’s.

“Today in order for any place, any city to be the best — it must change, grow in attitude and perspective, expand its mission and focus, join forces with new allies and renew alliances with longtime partners using experience and dreams to form the basis of the relationship,” Franklin said. “For any city to be its best it must embrace its history, learn history’s lessons, discard that which is no longer relevant and expand its perspective. It is the combination of history and vision which can propel a city’s vision.”

Later she added:

“As mayor, the hardest work I tackled was imagining the future, the city 50 years from now and what difference my actions or inaction would mean. Imagining how our successes and failures would impact the health and welfare of the city and its residents in 50 years was the topic of endless senior staff meetings, political discussions and my musings. Imagining the incredible contributions this generation could make in forming a foundation for future success became a filter for how I would spend my time and use the extraordinary resources every mayor has to community goodwill and expert advice. “

And then it sounded as though she was speaking directly to Mayor Reed.

“I hear both political and business leaders say they will concentrate on one or two priorities, not push themselves to take on too many challenges at once,” Franklin said.

For extra emphasis, she then highlighted the following paragraph in bold yellow.

“This sounds great and may be a successful way to communicate your goals in the media or to get re-elected or get your business contract extended, but the number of challenges and opportunities doesn’t change because you ignore them or dismiss them as unimportant.”

By definition, a city’s or a state’s or a nation’s scope of work is multifaceted. In fact, it often is incomplete to tackle certain challenges in a narrow way.

Take crime and public safety. A mayor can make it a top priority to add to the number of police officers to the city’s streets. But to make a community truly safe, it needs life on the streets. People walking on sidewalks. Storefronts and restaurants lining the streets. People living and working in the same communities that are adorned with pleasantly landscaped corridors.

Isn’t it safer for Atlantans and visitors to be in a city with lots of street life and activity rather than a city that’s just armed with police officers watching our every move? Of course, having a robust public safety network — with adequate officers and fire fighters — is critical in any major city. But that is only one ingredient needed to create a safe city.

So as our new mayor continues in his first term at City Hall, he can herald back to the spirit of Atlanta’s long line of visionary mayors. In the words of Mayor Franklin speaking to Georgia Tech’s architecture students, our leaders must “reach for the stars” and “make the future spectacular.”

Franklin said that “we do know from history that without taking risks and subjecting ourselves to some ridicule, Atlanta would likely be the insignificant city some of the leaders predicted 180 years ago. We are the future we create.”

So when we ask ourselves the question — to aspire or not to aspire — we must not only take care of our city’s day-to-day needs, we must continue to dream. Atlanta must continue to be aspirational.

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.

32 replies
  1. Yr1215 says:

    The problems are real, and need solving. You can’t be aspirational when the city’s finances are crumbling courtesy of some previous inspiring but somewhat hapless leaders (and I’m sad to say Franklin is among them).

    Although, Maria, your cursory review of the Atlanta Beltline does not do justice to a pretty aspirational project given it is the biggest of its kind in the nation.

    Some blocking and tackling are due. Good city management leads to solid long term growth. Lower taxes, common sense regulation, and solid infrastructure investment is the formula for long term growth. My least favorite example comes to mind: Charlotte anyone? Let’s have an aspiration, but pocket it in preparation for the next growth cycle. And not forget the lessons of this one (ie, no more pension bs, no more insourcing private sector functions, no more carrying bad investments like the jail on the books, etc. etc.)

    And Atlanta will have a bright future.

    I support Reed’s efforts to not have too much A.D.D. If the city gets on a stable footing during his term (safety and finances), he can try to get the next ball rolling downhill.Report

  2. Andre W. says:

    Good piece. Atlanta has been fortunate to have a good group of visionary mayors – starting with Hartsfield. Let’s hope Reed continues that chain.Report

  3. FJ says:

    Yr1215 I could not agree with you more.

    If the city is not able to demonstrate it can efficiently handle the mundane day-to-day municipal functions, it harms the city’s ability to attract new people and businesses which in turn limits success of projects like the Beltline.

    The city simply MUST improve on the basics otherwise the big ideas will remain just that – ideas.Report

  4. Andre W. says:

    Atlanta has seen unprecedented growth in the last ten years. Companies are moving here, not leaving. To suggest that the city is not capable of managing basic municipal functions it disingenuous. If that were the case the city wouldn’t have grown by 20% over the last ten years. Dream big and dream often…Report

  5. Yr1215 says:

    Andre. Really? Let’s catalog them some of the shortcomings for the city that occurred in the prior 10 years (excluding Reed’s term):

    1. Massive international airport terminal cost overruns and delay
    2. Basic road conditions: improved, slightly.
    3. Crime: I think most are pretty concerned, although the stats make the city look somewhat reasonably safe.
    4. Panhandling: complete failure to manage.
    5. Budget balancing, contingency planning, financial forecasting, and rainy day reserves: COMPLETE AND UTTER FAILURE. Add to the list the inability to even know how much cash was on hand at any given moment.
    6. Exiting non-core functions: failure.
    7. Managing employee compensation (read PENSIONS): FAILURE.
    8. Organizational intelligence and efficiency of city bureaucracy: FAILURE (unless you’re a bigwig dealing with the city)
    9. Alternative transit service management and planning and growth: FAILURE
    10. Education improvements (not directly a city function): jury is out. State test cheating was so widespread no one knows for certain whether the schools have improved or not. They probably have improved some, probably due to massive additional tax revenue funding.
    11. Water meter billing: FAILURE. They couldn’t install meters correctly, bill correctly, or successfully collect accounts receivable.

    On the plus side, we do have a new sewer system.

    I guess I should stop there.

    If you refer to the metro area, yes companies are moving here. If you refer to the City of Atlanta, no they are most certainly not moving here. And the list above is an abbreviated summary of why. On the bright side, things are certainly improving. But Reed should keep focusing on blocking and tackling for now and he will be known as a great mayor.Report

  6. shirley says:

    To each his own. Give me the future. That is what I seek to leave my chidlren, their children and the city’s children. The greatest failure is not being able to grasp the future opportunities while delivering honest, responsive government every day. No one term of office matters in the long term unless it builds on the successes of those before it and reaches for the spectacular opportunities presented. Take the state which is mired in politics of exclusion and divisieness and underfunding mental health care, water and transportation infrastructure, k to 12 and post secondary education and economic development. The future is bleak for all of GA if there are not more that minimal investments in these among others. If we are to thrive economically and culturally, we need visionary, practical and competent leadership at every level of government. No one trait will do. Like it or not, Atlanta has offered such leadership for decades. The state didn’t dream of an airport, city leaders did. As so with the Olympics and the Beltline. The City and the residents stepped up to fund Clean Water Atlanta, programs to eliminate chronic homelessness, affordable housing, Sustainable Atlanta and the very COBRA system and the Police Foundation used to combat and prevent crime every day. Small dreams yield small outcomes.Report

  7. Yr1215 says:

    Shirley- I certainly agree that the city has responded to opportunities and the needs of its residents better than the state. I think many would argue that this is the nature of government. Polls indicate that the closer the government is to the people, the more popular it is. Ie, city government is more popular than the state government, which is more popular than the Federal Government. I’m a big believer in the devolution of power to local authorities, that can better respond to their constituencies. Switzerland and the UK come to mind. Where I’m going with this is: while I’m frustrated with the state government, I also recognize that the larger the constituency, the harder it is to please a majority. So I don’t entirely blame the state for problems. (Not that you necessarily were.)

    As far as the city reaching too low, I don’t think that’s been a problem and I have a hard time believing it will be in the future. The Beltline is a massive undertaking. The new downtown museum(s), a new symphony hall would all be accomplishments in their own right. In addition, a series of small accomplishments can turn a somewhat mediocre city into a great city. What great singular accomplishment does Portland or Seattle have? Yet many consider them fantastic cities. Atlanta will be fine, I think in part due to the new leadership. Of course, I’m glad there will continue to be the dreamers that will help push Atlanta.

    However, in the annals of Atlanta history, we can add one more seemingly minor, but pretty (very, in my opinion) significant snafu. Is this article (link below) really true? No one thought to figure out how to connect passengers to local transportation before designing and building the new international terminal? This is either ridiculous government, or ridiculous reporting.

  8. Yr1215 says:

    One more comment (unrelated to the article above). The press certainly is better at highlighting failures rather than successes. A disservice to their readers as well as the residents of Atanta. Bad news apparently sells.

    However, the financial problems at the city were significant and real. The deficit I’m sure is largely the result of the economy. But the city’s failures in the areas of financial controls, accounting, forecasting and budgeting are well and long documented. Of course, the Franklin years were still a huge improvement over the previous crew. But continually higher expectations are a good thing in my mind. If you don’t ever expect any improvements in the operations of government, you probably end up as a Republican.Report

  9. FJ says:

    Andre W – Yes the city has grown significantly this decade and I’m delighted that it has. Unfortunately, way too many of those new arrivals are questioning whether its worth the hassle to live in the city. They are finding a city with a cumbersome permitting process, higher taxes than the surrounding area, infrastructure in disrepair, and an unacceptable level of property crime. No resident should ever live EXPECTING their homes to be broken into.

    No unfortunately, this is not disingenuous. This is REALITY. I’d LOVE to be able to say otherwise but I’d be lying. I just hope Reed’s personal ambition is enough to drive him to fix city hall because if and when that happens, IMO the sky’s the limit for this city.Report

  10. FJ says:

    Yr1215 again I’m in your corner. EXCELLENT example of Portland and Seattle – cities that have neither hosted the Olympics nor have “the world’s largest” anything.

    What those cities “get” is that the primary function of the city is maintaining a high quality of life for its CITIZENS. I’ve always been struck by how so much effort in Atlanta goes towards things that will attract people for a week, day or a few hours. Guess what – If you create a city where residents love to live then people will also love to visit that same city!Report

  11. Andre W. says:

    Any organization needs improvement. City Government needs to continue the improvement seen under the Franklin years. When Franklin got in office the financial department was prehistoric. It’s not anymore. It took tough decisions, cutbacks and plenty of her political capital, but most acknowledge it to be light years better now.

    The pension problem didn’t just arrive, rather its cyclical and has been a problem for decades. Franklin didn’t create it or fix it. The city is hardly responsible for transportation and education. Point you arrows at State government, not the city.

    I’m interested to learn how some of you have analytical data about the feelings of most new Atlantans. I would suspect you don’t and are just venting the feelings of your circle. As a long time Atlanta resident myself, my circle likes Atlanta. People want to be here.

    Atlanta’s taxes are actually in line with, or lower, than other major cities. Sure it’s cheaper in the suburbs, but it’s like that everywhere. You can expect higher taxes if you choose to live in a major city – near attractions, culture, and yes, higher crime. If not, move out to the suburbs and be surrounded by chain restaurants, soccer moms, and strip malls.

    BTW, the article was about vision and dreaming. I want my elected officials to dream and have grand visions. Like “shirley” points out above, we wouldn’t even be talking about Atlanta in the same sentence with other major cities without those dreams.Report

  12. Andre W. says:

    One more thing, you can’t reasonable compare Atlanta to Portland and Seattle. Yes they are comparable in size, but Atlanta’s poverty rate is double those cities. We can start a conversation about socioeconomic factors and quality of life, but I don’t think any of us want to go there.Report

  13. Yr1215 says:

    FJ, I agree with your points.

    Andre, I’m sure Franklin made significant progress. But the finance department transitioning from knowing addition to multiplication, in a world functioning on calculus, doesn’t equate to huge progress.

    Second, if Portland / Seattle don’t work for you as comparison cities on socioeconomic grounds, then how about Charlotte, or Nashville (smaller) or Dallas? They have similar socioeconomic backgrounds, have never hosted the Olympics, and have done better on the growth front. They have progressed ahead of Atlanta in having a quality downtown and overall quality city.

    Assuming the Atlanta Beltline (even without the transit component) is completed at a high quality, I think the game changes.

    I’ll add some more anecdotal evidence. I have several friends moving from Atlanta to Dallas and Charlotte (and some to Raleigh and Nashville) due to better (or the existence) of new jobs. Atlanta has done poorly on the fundamentals previously mentioned. And companies have elected to move or grow elsewhere. Plenty of my friends like Atlanta. An equal number are relatively displeased with it. My “friends survey” isn’t what counts. Look where companies and those who need jobs are moving. It is not the city of Atlanta.

    Also, the state is not ultimately responsible for non-university education and local transportation. The city government is obviously not in charge of MARTA or APS, but there is some huge leverage there. Atlanta and its officials (from the mayor to the city hall janitor), god love’em, have to quit worrying about the state and figure out how to make things happen without the state. If the city turns itself into a very likeable asset for the state of Georgia, I suspect more state help will be forthcoming (but that shouldn’t matter). Its not completely unreasonable for the state to take a “show me” attitude.

    Finally, not fixing a big problem (pensions) is a big failure. Granted Franklin got handed lots of big problems, but so did Reed. Big problems cannot be deferred forever. She managed to slay one (the sewers), but there are a lot more. I think and hope Reed will focus on fixing these.Report

  14. Yr1215 says:

    Andre, If the city is so darn fabulous, why have probably a quarter of the Atlanta companies (including the AJC) moved to Central Perimeter office market? It is now an office market more than twice the size of the downtown Atlanta market. Sure, one can wax philisophical about Cox’s existing offices there, access to a good labor pool, etc. My response is: well, why is Cox there, why is there a better labor pool there, why are people moving there? The obvious answer is a better run government.

    Why are the growth rates of our nearest major competitive cities 0.50% or more higher? The facts speak for themselves. Atlanta can be a great city. But denial and hope are not strategies. “Fixing the fundamentals” is a strategy, and one that I believe works.Report

  15. Andre W. says:

    There are a lot of reasons why some companies are moving to the northern suburbs, but “better government” I suspect is low on the list. Try better schools and shorter commutes for their employees. Both of which, education and transportation, are not primary functions of city hall.

    You can’t ignore the state’s responsibility. The fact of the matter is Atlanta is the economic engine for the region, much less the state, and gets treated like the red headed step child by state government. You and I know the reasons why the state takes the city for granted and it has nothing to do with city being a “likable asset”. This is the south for heaven sakes!

    Also, Atlanta socioeconomic factors are comparable to Charlotte and Nashville. What are you smoking? Let’s try Detroit, Cleveland, and Miami.Report

  16. Andre W. says:

    Thanks for pointing that article out. You made my point crystal clear. Governments are in trouble all over the US due to their pension liability. I suspect wholesale changes from DC are the only answer.Report

  17. Yr1215 says:

    Andre -haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Again, you place hope in someone bailing you / us out. Pension obligations aren’t problems everywhere. Only someone with blind faith in government would extrapolate from one article that there are problems everywhere. Indeed, many cities do have pension obligation problems. But hardly all of them, and the feds aren’t going to bail you, the city, or me as a taxpayer for the city, out of the mess.

    I just totally disagree with you. Unless of course you mean wholesale changes from DC that permit the elimination of pension obligations in bankruptcy (which as this article points out are currently not permitted). But I wouldn’t count on a bailout or a change in the law. The city is responsible for itself and will go into bankruptcy if the problem isn’t solved. Courtesy of some hair-brained unions.Report

  18. Yr1215 says:

    Andre, your faith in the help of the federal government is sorely, sorely misplaced.

    It’s not clear if you are referring to a bailout by saying “wholesale changes from DC.” But if you are, you’re going to find DC is in no position to bail anyone out.

    DC is already known as Sacramento on the Potomac, and America is becoming Greek. And that is unlikely to change. Good grief Andre. You’re going to be in for a surprise one day.Report

  19. Tim A says:

    The only reason Perimeter is considered larger than Downtown is because of the sheer amount of land in it, and even then according to the latest Colliers report it’s very close. (Downtown 25MSF to Perimeter 28M – add Midtown and you jump to 45M!)

    I do think you have a bit of grass is greener syndrome, Y. Dallas just closed one of their biggest downtown office buildings due to lack of tenants. We have more than our fair share of problems, but I think a lot of this is due to complete lack of foresight at the State level. Atlanta government is doing a better job of attempting to tackle its issues compared with many of those midwestern cities you mentioned. (Cleveland, etc)Report

  20. Yr1215 says:

    Here you go Tim., here’s a link to your report. I guess you’re correct if you count all the B and C quality space. But I don’t think new companies moving to Atlanta generally deal in B, and definitely not C space. According to Colliers stats for “A” space, Central Perimeter is 19.1mm sq.ft. and downtown is 13.1 sq. ft. Ask any broker in Atlanta, Central Perimeter is the dominant market for any S&P 500 company. And for any company, downtown is at the bottom of the list unless there are political connections driving them there.

    Furthermore, Central Perimeter didn’t exist 20 years ago. Downtown, in contrast hasn’t seen a new building since 1991. So where are tenants going?

    You’re in denial dude.

    Lump midtown in if you want. You’re deluding yourself. Visitors to Atlanta, and business thinking of locating here, often see Downtown first, not Midtown. That’s their first impression, and its generally an incredibly poor one.

    I didn’t put Atlanta in the same bucket as Cleveland. If you want to, then I probably need to move because to compare us to Cleveland is a depressing thought. Dallas, a better comparison, is a far more dynamic city than Atlanta. Their unemployment rate is a full 2.4% lower than Atlanta’s.

    People in this city need to stop whining about the state and start fixing problems. Its just pathetic.

    And please stop blaming the state for all of Atlanta’s woes.Report

  21. Andre W. says:

    The fact is that Atlanta is the goose that lays the egg for everywhere else in Georgia (including the Perimeter). State’s typically help out there economic generators. Georgia does not. That needs to change quickly. The city is making progress. Even you agree the city is making progress.

    The state needs to pitch in and do its share. I think I read that most State’s contribute up to 20% to the budgets their major cities. If so, Atlanta is getting screwed.Report

  22. Tim A. says:

    GMAB – Like downtown Dallas is that much better? Their downtown (barely larger than ours, and notably smaller than our combined CBD) has a higher vacancy rate, has no nearby university (or two) and no tourist/museum district like COP and the aquarium. And indeed, two new office buildings have been built in downtown – Allen Plaza added over 600k square feet of office space in two buildings built in the middle of last decade. Downtown also has the LOWEST vacancy rate of all districts in the metro. I realize I sound like a cheerleader, so I’m gonna stop there. Downtown still has a LONG way to go, but it’s moving there slowly (and will be helped along as Midtown and other adjacent areas continue to improve around it)

    Metro Chicago’s unemployment rate is higher than ours, and we’re right in line other vibrant metros like Portland and S.F. It’s not the city of Atlanta’s fault that the metro area grew too fast without resource planning for water (one big, temporary hit on our reputation and economy over the past couple of years) nor is it at fault for all the little banks crashing throughout the metro and state which hurt lending.

    I see eye to eye with you for the most point, I just think you might be giving too much credit. Dallas’s economy still has energy backing it up. (obvious not to the extent of Houston)Report

  23. Yr1215 says:

    Perhaps you’re not aware of the legitimate and sizeable arts district downtown in Dallas (I don’t think I’d consider castleberry hill much more than a pit stop). I agree Downtown is moving in the right direction. I’m glad glaciers move forward too, but I wish we would move at a faster pace considering there are manageable improvements that could be made.

    I’ll concede downtown Dallas obviously has a lot of vacancy. I guess if you consider Buckhead (or maybe, maybe Midtown) to be the real downtown Atlanta, we’re probably doing just fine from a growth standpoint.

    Finally, Tim, I’m afraid I would never compare Portland / SF to Atlanta on the assumption that we’re somehow in line with them. They’re far better cities, and anybody with an reasonably objective opinion would admit that.Report

  24. Tim A. says:

    Oh God… I wasn’t suggesting that Atlanta is equivalent to SF or Portland, or Chicago (or a ton of other vibrant cities) – was just comparing the unemployment rates, since you used that as a measure of vibrancy. Downtown Dallas (the business district itself) is similar to Downtown Atlanta in that it has blocks of dreck interspersed with nicer areas like Fairlie-Poplar.

    Midtown is clearly our arts district. Downtown and Midtown Atlanta combined act as one long continuous district, not unlike the Loop + River North, Downtown + Midtown NYC, etc. Dallas doesn’t even have a “Buckhead” – all of it’s suburban office space is in office parks like Perimeter, or lining the freeways. Sheesh. I’m finished here.Report


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