Austin LINK trip with Mayor Andre Dickens is a hopeful sign for region
By Maria Saporta
AUSTIN — A spirit of optimism enveloped the 2022 LINK trip as 120 Atlanta Regional leaders traveled to the capital city of Texas from May 4 to May 7.
The reason for the optimism? There was a renewed spirit of regional cooperation triggered by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens actively participating in the trip and fully engaging with his counterparts from throughout metro Atlanta.
Dickens said he did not realize before the trip how critical it is for the mayor of Atlanta to be present during the annual trip when a metro delegation travels to a different city to learn how to address issues we share.
It has been 10 years since an Atlanta mayor has been on the LINK trip. In the 25 years of LINK trips, the only other mayor who has actively participated in the three-day event has been Shirley Franklin, who has supported and mentored Dickens’ political career.
“Just about every person who has been on this trip has told me how glad they are that I’m here,” Dickens said in an interview after attending the last session on Friday. “They have been missing the Atlanta mayor’s voice in the room.”
Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner, who is the longest-serving commission chair in the 11-counties served by the Atlanta Regional Commission and attended 10 LINK trips, noted the change.
“It definitely makes a difference having the mayor of Atlanta on the trip,” Turner said. “If we are going to talk about regional issues and challenges — and how to resolve them — we need to collectively come together. That includes the mayor of Atlanta and the other city and county stakeholders.”
Early Thursday morning, all the elected leaders on the trip met privately to talk about how they can work together more closely on regional issues.
“We had a good, candid conversation,” Turner said. “It’s fine to have discussions and conversations, but we need action. Action is far more valuable.”
That sentiment was shared by Lisa Cupid, chair of the Cobb County Commission, who said the region must be willing to have “the tough conversations about policy,” otherwise “we’re just spinning our wheels.”
Cupid noted that the issue of equity kept coming up in Austin, a city that adopted the 1928 Plan, which called for all people of color to be moved to a six-mile area in East Austin — the area east of Interstate-35. The repercussions of that discriminatory policy are still being felt in Austin today, according to Nefertitti Jackmon, Austin’s community displacement prevention officer.
“We also have significant issues of inequity,” Cupid told the LINK delegation. “We have to be intentional.”
(By the way, Dickens said having a displacement prevention officer could be an idea Atlanta borrows from Austin).
During the LINK trip, metro Atlanta leaders learned about the issues facing Austin, specifically how it is trying to cope with unbridled growth — and the impact that growth is having on housing affordability, transportation, homelessness and the city’s culture.
“We see you guys as one of our peers,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the Atlanta delegation. “We have spent a lot of time looking at you guys on mobility and transportation. I think our cities share a lot of common challenges.”
Adler, who is finishing up his second term as mayor, said Austin’s creative culture stands out. The city is known for music, innovation, technology and creativity. Tech firms also are choosing to invest in Austin, including Tesla, Google, and Apple.
“Creation of art is part of what creates the magic of this place,” said Adler, who recited a common refrain — that Austin is the fastest-growing large metro area in the country. “We are hitting on all cylinders.”
But the city wasn’t able to keep up with the growth.
“The biggest problem is affordability,” Adler said. “Austin was the cheapest big city in Texas when I got here. Now it’s the most expensive city in Texas rivaling San Francisco and Seattle. We have built more housing in the country per capita, but it’s not enough.”
Then the mayor gave a gentle warning to Atlanta. “If you wait too long, the challenge will get too great… and you will be unable to fix it.”
Austin also is facing a growing homeless population, and it’s working on solutions. After years of working at cross purposes, Adler said the Austin Chamber of Commerce is working with social justice leaders to find ways they can jointly work on short-term and long-term solutions.
Austin leaders have raised between $400 million and $500 million to address issues around homelessness and housing affordability.
Laura Hoffman, CEO of the Austin Chamber, said the region is investing $20 billion in infrastructure investment.
That includes a $4 billion expansion of the Austin airport as well as a proposal to restitch the city after the division caused by I-35 and race inequities by sinking the lanes and building caps on top.
The biggest transportation investment is a $7.1 billion “Project Connect” to build two major new light rail lines, a downtown tunnel for a subway as well as a more limited investment in bus transit. Austin also included funding to prevent community displacement. Voters passed Project Connect in November 2020 by a 58 percent majority.
During the same election, voters also approved an additional $460 million transportation bond to improve city roads, sidewalks and bike paths, which passed with more than 67 percent of the vote.
“These guys do referendum like water,” observed Mayor Dickens.
Kevin Abel, who serves on the Georgia Department of Transportation, observed only one governmental entity — the City of Austin — needed to pass a mega transit referendum.
By comparison, Abel said that in metro Atlanta, “we are dealing with so many jurisdictions.”
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, however, viewed it as a challenge.
“We just have to make it work,” Paul said. “If Austin can do it, Atlanta can do it.”
Jim Wick, a strategic political consultant in Austin, said they put together a package that appealed to voters.
“Our research showed that people wanted something big. They didn’t want to nibble around the edges,” Wick said, adding young people carried the day. “People under 25 years old are very concerned. They definitely love rail. And they definitely love trains. That was a big key to our success.
When asked whether the proposed rail lines could eventually become bus routes, which has happened often in Atlanta, Austin leaders said voters approved the plan with property taxes that won’t sunset, which means if there are cost increases, the timetable would be adjusted rather than the mode.
“Transit passed because so many young people voted for it,” said Doug Shipman, president of the Atlanta City Council, who urged metro Atlanta leaders to make decisions for future generations. “This city is building for 20 or 40 years from now.”
Another recurring theme in Austin — population growth and increased real estate values are threatening to displace its creative residents and change the “Keep Austin Weird” culture.
Carter Andrews, who serves on the board of Austin Young Chamber, moved to the city because of South by Southwest about five years ago. The median price of a house was $325,000. Now it’s over $600,000.
“Austin is going the way of San Francisco and Seattle,” she said, adding young people are hoping to keep “the Austin vibe”
Ethan Monreal-Jackson, founder of New Type Ventures, which provides venture capital for people of color, said he doesn’t like the way the city is changing.
“I’m moving because this place is not welcoming to folks who look like me,” said Monreal-Jackson, who is of Black and Mexican decent. “Austin is going backward. There’s a lot more we can learn from Atlanta than y’all can learn from Austin.”
Atlanta must take heed to protect its diverse culture and quality of life.
“We have to protect our culture and our goals of equity,” Mayor Dickens said in his closing remarks to the delegation.
Bem Joiner, founder of Atlanta Influences Everything, was one of 26 Atlantans attending the LINK trip for the first time.
“The whole trip has been an amazing experience,” Joiner said, adding that it was a bit intimidating for the next generation to be around so many established leaders. “We understand influence, we understand branding and we understand the future. We need more cross-cultural collaboration.”
He then added: “It’s not as intimidating now that I’ve started drinking with y’all.”
Civic leader Bill Bolling, the only person to attend all 25 LINK trips, noted the changes over the years.
“There’s much more diversity,” Bolling said. “We also see that LINK has renewed itself… We will keep renewing it. We will keep bringing new people in. Keep it fresh. Relationships count. A lot of what we are doing this trip is relationship-building and trust-building.”
Clayton’s Turner said that is the beauty of the LINK trips — it forces people of different walks of life and different geographies to get together.
“It’s a good mix,” said Turner, who complimented Anna Roach, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, who succeeded Doug Hooker earlier this year. “Anna Roach is building on the foundation that Doug has laid.”
Having an Atlanta mayor willing to work with leaders throughout the region gives Turner hope.
“Mayor Andre Dickens has a different perspective and mentality when it comes to regional issues and Atlanta,” Turner said. “It’s important we have these types of discussions.”
Osborn “Oz” Nesbitt, chair of the Rockdale County Commission who was on his fourth LINK trip, agreed.
“In the four years I’ve been coming, it’s been difficult to get the centriplex of our region participating,” Nesbitt said. “Having the mayor of Atlanta here… you have the opportunity to get us all together.”
This is just the beginning, Dickens promised. He wants county and city leaders from throughout the region to come together and pick three or four initiatives where they can make an impact. One example is transit expansion.
“Transportation is a multi-jurisdictional issue,” said Dickens, who wants to help Gwinnett County Commission Chair Nicole Hendrickson and Cobb County Commission Chair Lisa Cupid to get more transit, preferably MARTA.
“I’m very happy to be here amongst my colleagues and to be on this trip,” said Dickens, who considers himself to be a peer while recognizing he has the influence to help create a stronger region, such as participating on future LINK trips. “I’m coming back.”