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Atlanta must rise to the challenge of becoming the next superstar city

Site of future Centennial Yards. (Photo by David Pendered)

By Guest Columnist BRIAN McGOWAN, president of the The Centennial Yards Co.

Returning to Atlanta after spending nearly three years in the Pacific Northwest, I see a city now facing the similar opportunities and challenges Seattle encountered on its journey to becoming a top market for tech talent and employers.

Brian McGowan. (File/Photo courtesy of Centennial Yards Co.)

Already home to many global brands, from Microsoft to Google, Atlanta is undoubtedly a rising tech hub with a promising future. And for both start-ups and Fortune 500 firms, there’s just so much to love about this city. The Brookings Institution refers to five regions in the United States as “superstar” regions because they have over 90 percent of all tech jobs – and I believe Atlanta will soon join that list. If I am right, there are things we need to urgently do now before it’s too late.

According to the 2020 Census, the city’s total population is nearly 500,000 – the highest it’s ever been. And for the first time, metro Atlanta is now majority-nonwhite. Our diverse talent pool has been cited by Microsoft and Airbnb as a key motivator in the decision to establish East Coast hubs in Atlanta, and as equity and inclusion remain major areas of focus for top employers, Atlanta is well positioned to benefit from this paradigm shift. Just last year, Atlanta City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland led the charge to revise Invest Atlanta’s criteria for companies seeking economic development incentives to place greater emphasis on those with a clear commitment to these values.

But our workforce isn’t just diverse – it’s highly educated. Atlanta is home to 57 colleges and universities, including Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and a prestigious collection of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), including Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. In fact, Apple and Southern Co. recently announced a $25 million investment to develop a technology and innovation hub for students at Atlanta University Center, the nation’s largest consortium of HBCUs.

Atlanta also boasts a unique culture, business-friendly regulations and taxes, desirable climate and a relatively low cost of living compared to other major cities. But we’re facing a pivotal moment in Atlanta’s growth story and must learn from the successes and failures of cities that have gone before us in order to create an equitable, inclusive and sustainable future for all. For all its successes as a top tech city, Seattle consistently ranks among the most expensive cities to live in the country. As Atlanta continues to attract the Microsofts and Amazons of the world, how do we avoid making the same mistakes as the Emerald City and Silicon Valley?

Centennial Yards is slated to create a vibrate street scene on the portion that’s to face State Farm Arena. (File/Rendering by DBOX for Centennial Yards)

Like many cities across the country right now, Atlanta is facing a housing supply shortage that is expected to worsen as homebuyer demand outweighs inventory levels. Explosive growth exacerbates this issue, and with metro Atlanta’s population expected to grow by 2.9 million by 2050, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, we must plan for the future and invest in infrastructure improvements and housing solutions now.

This means supporting zoning reforms that increase urban density. It means improving K-12 education and taking further steps to train and prepare our diverse workforce to fill future tech positions. It means curbing sprawl by creating viable, affordable housing closer to work, improving mass transit, building protected bike lanes and expanding the Atlanta BeltLine.

And now is the opportune time to bring people back to Atlanta’s urban core by delivering the downtown district this city deserves.

I returned to Atlanta to help lead Downtown’s largest redevelopment, Centennial Yards. This project will play a major role in Atlanta’s rise as a top tech city. Located between Atlanta University Center, Georgia State and Georgia Tech, Centennial Yards provides a unique home for corporations seeking access to a diverse talent pool and unprecedented brand visibility in a single-building or campus environment. It will lure major employers drawn to a walkable, urban district. It will also create thousands of jobs and hundreds of affordable housing units, with varied residential options drawing a diverse and educated workforce back to the heart of town.

In October, the Centennial Yards Company was pleased to present a $33.5 million check to the City of Atlanta as part of our community benefits package for the project. Centennial Yards is proud to be contributing $2 million toward vocational training and $28 million for an affordable housing trust fund for the families around the metro region, on top of delivering affordable housing units at the project itself. Additionally, a $12 million contribution toward an economic development fund managed by Invest Atlanta has been put into place.

Great downtowns are engines of economic, civic and cultural vibrancy, and Centennial Yards is Atlanta’s missing link. But there’s a lot more work to be done to ensure Atlanta continues to grow toward a sustainable and prosperous future for all.

As we continue to benefit from increased investment, job growth and population growth, we must anticipate the growing pains that come with the transition to superstar city. By tackling these challenges together and with urgency, we can create a more equitable future for all – one that is only achievable with Atlanta and for Atlanta.

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Brian McGowan

Brian McGowan returned to Atlanta in June to lead the Centennial Yards project. McGowan first arrived in Atlanta in 2011 to lead Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm. He transitioned to leadership roles at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Denton’s Atlanta office, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and Greater Seattle Partners, which he left to join Centennial Yards.

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4 Comments

  1. Tonybarnett1003@gmail.com December 5, 2021 10:26 pm

    What about the low income under poverty the homelessReport

    Reply
  2. Jeffrey Schwartz December 7, 2021 10:12 am

    All well and good. However, the City’s infrastructure when it comes to roads. traffic control, maintenance, traffic light coordination, etc. is in dire need of modernization. Traffic, as all residents are aware, is becoming a nightmare as population density increases, especially in the residential areas such as Old Forth Ward, Inman Park, Virginia and Poncy Highlands. The narrow roads of some major North-South lanes just cannot handle the increased traffic yet unrestricted development along these venues continue unabated. Not to mention continued road repair taking place during daytime rush hour periods. Other major cities repair roads during the nighttime hours to reduce traffic impact and environmental contamination via the exhaust of slow moving traffic. The cost of paying workers nighttime wages surely is less than the environmental impact if nothing is done. Atlanta needs to wake up and address these limitations before its too late.Report

    Reply
  3. JayB December 7, 2021 12:26 pm

    Mr. McGowan’s points are artfully made, but from a humanistic point of view, will the reality of Atlanta’s being in the regressive State of GA become an issue for recruiting? It apparently hasn’t hurt the film industry, and do rotten politics actually matter when almost everything these days is about making money?

    Rising crime, traffic (with increasing fatalities), poor infrastructure, increasing noise levels and over-development prompted us to move from the City of Atlanta, our hometown. And out of GA. I agree about the impressive educational institutions, but why no mention of Emory University and its remarkable healthcare complex? Healthcare is always a major issue, sooner or later.Report

    Reply
    1. Jackson January 11, 2022 4:56 am

      Yes, Emory is the Ivy League University of the south and worthy of a mention.Report

      Reply

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