By Maria Saporta
For 22 years, an impressive group of metro Atlanta civic, business and government leaders have spent three days a year visiting a North American city to learn how other cities are handling their urban challenges.
The LINK trips also have provided people an opportunity to get to know each other – connecting with leaders from different races, genders and sections of the Atlanta region as well as people from different circles of influence.
I have been fortunate to have been on every LINK trip but one (2008) – and I have seen how the experience has evolved over the decades.
Some outsiders have questioned the value of the LINK trips – arguing that the Atlanta region has little to show for these 22 years of visits to other cities.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The list of local initiatives that have emerged from LINK trips is too long to mention. Still, I’ll name a couple.
The Metro Atlanta Mayors Association was born in 2003 by then Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who saw a similar alliance during the 2002 LINK trip to Chicago.
The 2016 LINK trip to Dallas included a light rail transit line to the suburban town of Plano, Texas – showing regional Atlanta leaders how a transit line could lead to a better quality of life for a suburban community.
Participants of the 2018 LINK trip to San Diego gathered June 14 at the Georgian Club to have a debrief of the lessons learned and to draft action items.
Not surprisingly, several people mentioned that the most valuable outcome of the LINK trips has been the relationships formed among local leaders – how they’ve been able to share ideas, debate issues and find common ground.
But in recent years, the LINK trips have not included as many high-level leaders – from business, government and nonprofits – as there have been in previous years.
Missing this year was Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts, Cobb County Chairman Mike Boyce.
Few top business leaders were on the trip, this being one of the first years that Hala Moddelmog, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, did not attend. Several other important regional leaders were missing, such as Milton Little, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Atlanta; Jeff Parker, general manager and CEO of MARTA – among others.
Also, Atlanta’s top foundation leaders were absent – such as the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and the James M. Cox Foundation.
Although invited every year, no governor has ever been on a LINK trip.
For the last couple of years, in an effort to bring younger leaders to participate in the LINK trips, there now is a LINK Forward group of about 20 veteran leaders. They are part of a parallel experience with more intimate gatherings during the same time as the larger LINK delegation.
The LINK Forward group included Alicia Philipp, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta; State Sen. Brandon Beach, Bill Bolling, chairman of the Food Well Alliance, architect Robert Brown; Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District; former Gwinnett Chairman Wayne Hill; Ann Cramer, a senior consultant for Coxe Curry & Associates; and Michael Hightower, managing partner of the Collaborative Firm.
LINK Forward has been a valiant effort, but it’s time to revisit whether it is working.
By segregating some of our region’s senior leaders from the larger LINK group, we are doing a disservice to both groups. Younger LINK participants have limited opportunities to meet seasoned leaders, and LINK Forward participants are not given an opportunity to interact with the next generation of leaders.
So here are some ideas I have to refresh the LINK trips. I’m hoping they can spark a conversation on how we plan future LINK trips.
An intentional effort is needed to make sure key leaders are part of the LINK trip – most importantly – the mayor of Atlanta (this year the mayor of San Diego wouldn’t meet with the LINK group because Bottoms was not on the trip).
In its early days, LINK trips were a joint effort of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the former Regional Atlanta Civic League. Over the years, ARC has become the entity that coordinates, plans and organizes the trip.
Four major regional organizations exist in the Atlanta region – and can help blur the political lines that divide our region into dozens of cities and counties. There’s the ARC, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Community Foundation and United Way. The leaders of those organizations should help reinvigorate LINK.
The team that puts together the LINK trips does an excellent job scoping out the issues and leaders in the cities we visit. The Atlanta region can leverage their homework by being more strategic. For example, two key themes during the San Diego were housing affordability and transit (light rail and bus rapid transit). A pre-LINK meeting could help prime participants on what they can learn.
Also, a LINK trip could include a couple of smaller groups that could spend a day taking a deep dive on a handful of key issues. Then they can share their insights with the larger group, and everyone can then work on action plans for the Atlanta region.
And instead of separating the senior leaders from the younger leaders, LINK should pair the veterans with the newbies so they can learn from each other. The result will be regional mentor-mentee relationships.
These are just a few ideas.
Doug Hooker, ARC’s executive director, invited participants to share comments and critiques to make the LINK trips even better and more relevant in moving our region forward. “We are not the same community we were when (LINK) started,” Hooker said.
In short, the Atlanta region needs to refresh its LINK trips.