By Maria Saporta
When it comes to competing globally against other U.S. regional cities, metro Atlanta enters those contests at a disadvantage.
The number of cities and counties that make up the Atlanta region can make it difficult for the metro area to present a cohesive marketing and economic development message to the rest of the world.
That was one of the lessons that the annual LINK delegation of Atlanta business, government and civic leaders found out in 2013 when they traveled to the Greater Houston area. And when the LINK delegation travels to Philadelphia from May 7 to May 10, the same lesson is likely to be reinforced.
The City of Philadelphia is about the same size geographically as the City of Atlanta, but it has about three times Atlanta’s population. That means Philadelphia’s 1.5 million population represents about a fourth of its region’s population.
By comparison, the City of Atlanta’s population of about 500,000 represents about 1/10th of the Atlanta region’s population.
The City of Houston actually represents about two-thirds of its region’s population.
When there are fewer governments involved and one dominant city, it is easier to brand a region from an economic development perspective.
The Atlanta Regional Commission has become more integrally involved in helping the metro area develop and economic development strategy – one of the responsibilities given to the metro planning agency as part of its relationship with the federal government.
Working with economic development professionals from throughout the region, the ARC has been staffing the two-year effort known as the Atlanta Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy.
“One of the core skills and unique positions of the ARC is the ability to convene groups that may not be able to get together,” said Kerry Armstrong, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission who is a senior vice president of Pope and Land Enterprises. “The biggest challenge we had initially was convincing people that we were not in the economic development business, but that we could facilitate a larger discussion.”
The Philadelphia LINK trip will be an opportunity for regional Atlanta leaders to help define and refine their economic development strategy — especially in light of how the Pennsylvania city has had to reinvent itself from an industrial economy to an innovation economy.
Because it doesn’t have to focus so much on its regional divides, LINK trip organizer Rob LeBeau said that regionalism in Philadelphia is not top of mind. LeBeau, ARC’s manager of the community development division, said Philadelphia has strong examples of how the city can help build communities and how universities can foster innovation in their surrounding neighborhoods.
“They are further ahead than we are in a lot of ways,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission. “They do have a regional approach in competing in the global market place. They have leveraged the arts as part of their community transformation. And they have collaborated with their universities.”
As an industrial economy historically, Hooker said Philadelphia had to begin diversifying its economic base in the 1980s and 1990s.
“We have been living off of real estate for so long that we are just now learning how to broaden our economy,” Hooker said.
But adding to metro Atlanta’s complexity is the multitude of governments that make up the region.
“One of our challenges that other regions don’t have is that we have to coordinate a lot of small governments,” said Hooker, contrasting Atlanta with Houston and Philadelphia.. “We have to work a lot more collaboratively.”
By having so many governments, metro Atlanta also is prone to having multiple other agencies — such as transit. In addition to MARTA, there are separate transit agencies in Cobb and Gwinnett as well as the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s Xpress bus system. Soon the Atlanta Streetcar could also be its own system.
By comparison, Philadelphia’s SEPTA combined five to six transit agencies under one governance structure.
The 2014 LINK trip will be a little different than past trips.
For starters, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed will be a no show this year. (Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who has just gone on ARC’s board, will represent the city).
Several other elected leaders, who are facing opposition in the May 20th primary, also will not be on the trip.
That includes Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves; Fayette County Chair Steve Brown; and Buzz Ahrens, Cherokee County Chair. Gwinnett County Chair Charlotte Nash and Rockdale County Chair Richard Oden also won’t be attending this year’s trip.
But Cobb County Chair Tim Lee; interim DeKalb CEO Lee May; Clayton County Chair Jeff Turner; Walton County Chair Kevin Little and Douglas County Chair Tom Worthan will be on the trip.
Several mayors also will be attending: Mike Bodker of Johns Creek; Eric Clarkson of Chamblee; Nancy Harris of Duluth; and Jere Wood from Roswell.
Hala Moddelmog, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber; and Brian McGowan, COO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber; will be attending their first LINK trip. So will Dan Kaufman, president of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. Paul Morris of the Atlanta BeltLine will be on his first LINK trip.
In all, 111 leaders from the Atlanta region will be on the trip plus nine members from the ARC staff. Several representatives from Community Improvement Districts from throughout the region also will be on the trip.
Several people who have key roles in the Atlanta Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy also will be in attendance including its Chairman Craig Lesser of the Pendleton Consulting Group and its Vice Chairman Pedro Cherry of Georgia Power.
Each LINK trip develops its own themes based on the issues happening in the Atlanta region or the issues in the city that the LINK delegation is visiting.
The Philadelphia trip also will have a new element that long-time attendees have been begging for since the early days of the LINK trips. There will be feedback sessions everyday when members of the Atlanta delegation will be able to talk about what they have learned and how those lessons relate to the Atlanta region.
As ARC Chair Armstrong said “Philadelphia is a great choice” calling it “a nice surprise” because it will show the importance of “place-making” in a city.
For Atlanta, it’s an opportunity to get people from the government, business and nonprofit sectors focused on our region and to get different players to get to know each other away from their day-to-day lives.
As Armstrong said: “The opportunity for interaction is invaluable.”
A HISTORY OF THE LINK TRIPS:
In 1997, the Atlanta region launched its LINK program, which stands for “Leadership, Innovation, Networking, Knowledge.” While the trips are organized by the Atlanta Regional Commission, the business community and civic groups also contribute ideas.
The participants usually include the chairs of most of the counties in the regions, many of the region’s mayors, business leaders, developers, planners and non-profit executives.
The purpose of the LINK trips is to learn about best and worst practices from other major cities dealing with many of the same issues as metro Atlanta, such as transportation, land use, governance and citizen participation.
The trips also have been instrumental in helping forge relationships among regional leaders, and they have been viewed as a vehicle to bring the region closer together.
The first LINK trip had less than 50 people, and now it has more than doubled in size. The LINK trip occurs each spring, beginning on a Wednesday morning and lasting until the return flight on Saturday.
Each individual participant is responsible for paying for his or her own trip, which costs between $2,500 and $3,000 depending on the city. That includes the flights, the transportation in the city they are visiting and all but one meal.
The cities where the LINK delegation has visited:
2001: San Diego
2003: San Francisco
2005: Portland, Oregon
2009: Minneapolis-St. Paul
2012: Washington, D.C.