By Maria Saporta
Three hours after being named as the next president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc. Wednesday morning, Brian McGowan was having lunch at Ponce City Market with Ryan Gravel, the visionary who first proposed the BeltLine concept in his Georgia Tech Master’s thesis.
“I’m optimistic he will be able to take the BeltLine in a direction it needs to go,” Gravel said of his Wednesday meeting with McGowan. “I’m always excited about the opportunity to shift the leadership so the project can reach the potential we have been talking about all these years.”
Gravel, who has been particularly outspoken about the BeltLine’s lack of progress in creating affordable housing, also has wanted to see greater collaboration among various entities.
“In the early days, the project was really open to partnering with other organizations to build a larger shared vision,” Gravel said. “We need to get back to that.”
When they met Wednesday, Gravel said he was pleasantly surprised that McGowan mentioned several issues without any prompting – such as inclusion and collaboration.
McGowan, who most recently has had an economic development practice at the Denton’s law firm, served as president and CEO of Invest Atlanta and as chief operating officer of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
McGowan, in a telephone interview Wednesday evening, clearly was thinking deeply about his new role, which will begin Sept. 11.
“I don’t think we have taken full advantage of the BeltLine,” McGowan said. “The BeltLine right now is in a unique position to go to the next level. We have been thinking too small and strayed too far away from the original vision of the BeltLine.
“The BeltLine was originally intended to be a catalyst in a city that was racially and economically divided,” McGowan added. “I see the BeltLine as an opportunity to address issues like economic inequality and economic mobility. Those I believe are Atlanta’s biggest problems. They are problems in almost every major city in America.The difference is that other cities don’t have an opportunity like the BeltLine. It can be a catalyst to address income inequality in the city.”
John Somerhalder, chairman of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., said McGowan was uniquely qualified to be the next leader of the organization.
“We are very fortunate we have someone who can hit the ground running, but also brings forward many skills that will be beneficial to the BeltLine,” Somerhalder said. “He knows Atlanta. He has very good contacts in town. With his experience, it positions the leadership of the BeltLine to maintain the momentum we have had.”
The transition in leadership comes at an interesting time for the city, which is in the midst of a mayoral election. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was instrumental pushing out Paul Morris, who has been president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc. for the past four years, and he was equally instrumental in getting McGowan to agree to take the position.
About three or four weeks ago, McGowan said he began getting calls from the mayor and Somerhalder asking him if he would consider taking the job. Given the fact there will be a new mayor in office in January, McGowan said he needed some kind of assurance the job would be for more than a few months.
“I do have a guarantee,” McGowan said. “It will be a multi-year agreement.”
Somerhalder said the details of the agreement are a personnel matter. But he did say there were assurances provided.
“Obviously we worked with Brian to do what’s appropriate with compensation and other related issues,” Somerhalder said. “I have every confidence that Brian can be and should be a long-term leader of the BeltLine. That’s what I believe is in the best interest of the Atlanta BeltLine.”
Somerhalder acknowledged the project has numerous priorities – affordable housing, economic development, equity and inclusion as well as completing real estate acquisition, building trails and offering transit.
McGowan, 48, seemed up to the task.
“The BeltLine can be a catalyst to address income inequality in the city,” McGowan said. “Ultimately, the BeltLine is about people. The BeltLine gives us an opportunity to make Atlanta a global city that’s economically inclusive, one that has transportation options, one that has art for everyone. Global cities also have parks and open spaces for all. We are not there yet, but we are on our way.”
McGowan has also reached out to Morris. “I talked to Paul this morning,” McGowan said. “And he’s offered to provide any help that I need.”
The Atlanta BeltLine Inc will now have had four CEOs – Terri Montague, Brian Leary, Morris and now McGowan – since July 2006. Interestingly enough, Leary was selected in September, 2009, in the last several months of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration.
McGowan said organizations tend to have different leaders who are right for the different times in an entity’s life, and that is the case with the BeltLine.
He received a text Wednesday from Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay who called the BeltLine the biggest and most catalytic project in Atlanta for the next 20 years. As McGowan see it, the BeltLine touches most parts of the city and can change Atlanta for the better.
Gravel said one of the keys will be the BeltLine’s willingness to work with others and to “return to the kind of openness” the project had in its earlier days.
“Obviously, I have been involved with the project for a long time, and I have seen leadership come and go,” Gravel said. “The project is not up to one person or one organization. It’s such a big deal. And the world is watching. It’s so complex, and it requires a lot of different skill sets and a lot of different partners.”
Gravel shared his thoughts with McGowan telling him it was “really important for the leadership to take an inclusive role and make sure it build those kind of partnerships.”
When asked about working with the next mayor, McGowan was hopeful.
“I’m excited by whoever is the next mayor will be because I think Atlanta is about to take off,” McGowan said. “And the Atlanta BeltLine will be a big part of that.”