Atlanta’s quest to be a global city reaches a new level with focus on immigration and a new soccer team

By Maria Saporta

Each decade has brought a new international flavor to Atlanta.

Now we are entering another significant phase that will be marked with a new Major League Soccer team in 2017 as well as a concerted effort by the Atlanta business community and City Hall to be a welcoming city.

Atlanta’s quest to become the world’s next great city really began to take off in the 1970s. Eastern Airlines began flying to Montego Bay and Mexico out of Atlanta on July 1, 1971; and Sabena Belgian World Airlines became Atlanta’s first foreign carrier with flights to Brussels beginning on June 1, 1978.

That was when Atlanta had been designated a European gateway city, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and then-Gov. George Busbee, who also began building relationships with Japan and China.

The 1980s may well have been Atlanta’s most international decade — with former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young serving as its mayor from January 1982 to January 1990. Because Young was always traveling to international destinations, he was accused of being the first Atlanta mayor to have a foreign policy.

That decade, however, coincided with Delta Air Lines’ discovery of new destinations overseas — primarily to the popular cities in Europe. And with each new flight came direct foreign investment and trade.

The 1990s brought us the biggest international event one can host — the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. And in 2000, Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl during a freakish Atlanta ice storm. The city then decided to start building the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal at the Atlanta Airport, which opened on July 16, 2012 to handle the anticipated increased in passengers traveling internationally in and out of Atlanta.

During a briefing with journalists last week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed pledged to focus on international opportunities during his remaining time in office — a few months shy of four years.

After just returning from a trade mission to Brazil, Reed was excited by the opportunities he saw for Atlanta companies to strengthen their ties with South America and Mexico. Delta is the top reason why he believes Atlanta is well-positioned to serve Latin American market.

“We think we have a very good opportunity, to not displace Miami, but to be the secondary point of entry into Latin America,” Reed said. “We think we can make Atlanta be the place for business with Latin America.”

Reed said that international development in a key markets “is how I’m going to spend the next four years.” He said he will “nurture” relationships for Atlanta in South America, Mexico, Europe and Africa — a continent where former Mayor Young already has cemented ties with Atlanta.

But in order for Atlanta to compete on a global scale, everyone agrees – it can not be hostile to people from other countries.

“We just have to change our tone. The tone that is being put forth about immigration of foreign born citizens just won’t work in a global economy,” Reed said at the press briefing. “You are going to hear more about it. Atlanta is going to go through a process where it’s going to fully embrace being an international city.”

Moments later, Reed was honored at the Latin American Association’s Companeros luncheon at the Georgia Aquarium, where he was introduced by his mentor, Andrew Young.

“Atlanta has always been a city with welcoming open arms,” Young said. “I want the United States to see immigration as a way to a peaceful and prosperous world.”

Jeffrey Tapia, executive director of the Latin American Association, made a passionate plea for immigration reform that would allow for “millions of hard-working families who have called the United States home for 10, 15 and 20 years to apply for legal status.”

She said that would allow young adults who have grown up here to go to college; it would allow parents to drive, work and provide for their families; and it would mean that children could come home from school each day without fearing that their parents had been deported.

“Immigration reform will keep families together—a cherished American value,” she said. “And by allowing families to work and study, it will go far in reducing generational poverty, bringing hope for the future – especially to immigrant children.”

Mayor Reed told the audience of 400 attendees that Atlanta is the city with the second fastest-growing foreign-born population in the United States.

“Inclusiveness is a part of Atlanta’s secret formula,” Reed said, adding that Atlanta joined the Welcoming Cities Initiative earlier this year. And then he reminded them that our sports portfolio is about to become more international. “While Americans love football, the world loves soccer.”

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.

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