Commentary: Protecting Georgia’s natural beauty crucial

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

Georgia Legacy – a coalition of environmental organizations – has a new proposal to create a state fund for land conservation. RALPH DAILY / FLICKR.COM/RALPHANDJENNY

Georgia Legacy – a coalition of environmental organizations – has a new proposal to create a state fund for land conservation.

Unlike several of its neighboring states, Georgia does not have a dedicated fund for land conservation. Environmentalists hope to get that changed in 2016.

Georgia has it all – mountains, old-growth forests, beaches, marshes, swamps, wildlife areas, lakes and rivers.

What it doesn’t have is a dedicated fund to buy land to protect those resources.

In 1998, Georgia voters were asked if they would support a real estate transfer tax to create such a fund. It failed because it was seen as a tax increase.

Now Georgia Legacy – a coalition of environmental organizations – has a new proposal.

It wants 75 percent of all state taxes collected from the sale of outdoor recreational goods to go to a dedicated fund for land conservation.

The fund could generate about $40 million a year to purchase environmentally sensitive property, to help local governments acquire their own green space, and to help maintain existing conservation property.

Georgia currently owns only 1.2 percent of the land area in the state. That places the Peach State 12th among the 16 Southern states for land conservation.

Polls show 70 percent of Georgians favor a dedicated fund for green space acquisition.

Since Georgia Legacy plans to use existing tax dollars, environmentalists hope the proposal will be embraced by legislators and voters alike.

It may be an uphill battle, since a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds support from the General Assembly and must be approved by voters.

But there’s nonpartisan support among lawmakers for land protection.  Now it’s a matter of environmentalists educating them and voters on the importance of protecting Georgia’s green spaces.

Protecting Georgia’s natural beauty would be a special legacy.

Commentary: Reopening of the Children’s Museum of Atlanta

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

The Children’s Museum of Atlanta reopened Dec. 12 after being closed for several months to undergo an extensive renovation and expansion.

The Children's Museum in downtown Atlanta recently reopened after closing for extensive renovations.

The Children’s Museum in downtown Atlanta recently reopened after closing for extensive renovations.

When the Children’s Museum opened in 2003 across from Centennial Olympic Park, it was the only attraction in that area of downtown Atlanta.

Soon it was joined by the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coke, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame.

But after a decade in business, the leaders of the Children’s Museum felt their attraction needed to be refreshed. So they took a fresh look. Were they in the right location? Were they serving the right ages: children ages 8 and under?  Did they have the right exhibits? Were they big enough?

The answer to most of those questions: “yes.” But they also recognized they needed to expand and offer more opportunities to learn Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math through play. So they raised more than $8 million to add a mezzanine level.

The Children’s Museum has just reopened. The centerpiece is called the “Gateway to the World.” It is a blue globe where children can climb up inside and actually spin the Earth.

A farm-to-table exhibit shows how food is grown, harvested, shipped and delivered to a Waffle House-type diner.

There’s a sand table where children can create different landscapes and, through special effects, see how that impacts the environment.

Children’s Museum CEO Jane Turner says it is all about innovation and giving children opportunities to solve problems. Studies have shown that play sparks a child’s creativity.

The Museum also reinforces downtown Atlanta’s role as a place for people of all ages to come visit and enjoy. Now the area around Centennial Olympic Park has a variety of attractions bringing new life to the heart of the city.

Commentary: Arts funding for all vital to Atlanta

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund held its annual meeting in December, when it gave away $1 million in grants to 12 arts groups.

The fund has been instrumental in stabilizing Atlanta’s small- and mid-sized arts organizations.

The Museum of Design Atlanta Inc. is one of the beneficiaries of the Metropolitan Arts Fund's 2015 grants. It will receive $150,000 over the next two years. NERVOUS SYSTEM

The Museum of Design Atlanta Inc. is one of the beneficiaries of the Metropolitan Arts Fund’s 2015 grants. It will receive $150,000 over the next two years.

Twenty-two years ago, the Atlanta Arts community was split between the haves and the have-nots.  There was the Woodruff Arts Center and then … everyone else.

To balance the scales the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund was launched in 1993, and to date, it has given out more than $11 million to promote the arts at all levels.

The biggest donor to the fund is the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations. It recently gave the Arts Fund a nearly $3 million grant.

Each year for the next three years this grant will allow the fund to give $1 million to arts groups to do with as they please.  The fund gave away its annual $1 million for 2015 at a December meeting.

Without a doubt, this money has been a life jacket for arts organizations trying to stay afloat during difficult economic times. And that has made the cultural ecosystem of Atlanta more robust, expanding far beyond the Woodruff Arts Center.

Smaller sustainable arts organizations serve as a feeder system to the larger groups – giving artists, actors, musicians and writers an opportunity to develop their craft in Atlanta.

As Woodruff Foundation President Russ Hardin said, “The arts are important to a vibrant, healthy Atlanta.”

Commentary: Time for region to be MARTA smart

Originaly Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

MARTA train

MARTA, which hasn’t had a major expansion plan in decades, would like a 40-year, half-penny sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb counties. (credit Wikipedia)

Here we go again. Another year. Another transportation debate.

This time, Fulton County wants a five-year penny sales tax for transportation.

The idea is gaining steam among the mayors of the various Fulton cities who want new funding — primarily for roads.

The exception is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who wants funding to expand the city’s streetcar network — especially along the Atlanta BeltLine.

Meanwhile, MARTA, which hasn’t had a major expansion plan in decades, would like a 40-year, half-penny sales tax in Fulton and DeKalb.  It would help expand rail to Alpharetta, the Clifton Corridor, high-capacity transit to South DeKalb and possible investments in the BeltLine.

Both proposals have valid arguments. But both proposals are headed to a head-on collision where everyone could lose. Even Reed says voters are unlikely to pass both taxes.

There are few options to fund transit since the state constitution restricts gas tax revenues to roads and bridges.

Yet year after year, whenever new taxes are passed, roads get funded and transit gets left behind. One official described it as being “stuck on stupid.”

Let’s be MARTA smart for a change.

Commentary: Sprucing up park honors Atlanta Olympic history

Original story by Maria Saporta on WABE

Centennial Olympic Park water feature (photo: Britton Edwards)

Centennial Olympic Park water feature (photo: Britton Edwards)

The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation has awarded $10 million towards the rejuvenation of Centennial Olympic Park. A $25 million fundraising campaign to improve the park will launch in January, 2016 ─ all in an effort to mark the 20th anniversary of Atlanta’s hosting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, Centennial Olympic Park replaced acres and acres of parking lots and vacant industrial buildings.

The park, the most significant legacy from the Olympics, has become a new front door for Atlanta.

The park’s owner, the Georgia World Congress Center, wants to reinvest and refresh the green space that has transformed downtown Atlanta.

The $25 million  campaign includes the acquisition and demolition of the metro Atlanta chamber building and turning that into green space.

It also will create a new special events space and a new park’s maintenance facility next to the aquarium. Major entrances to the park will be more welcoming to visitors and residents. The amphitheater will be upgraded and expanded with a band shell, a stage and additional seating.

And perhaps most symbolic of all ─ Andrew Young International Boulevard will become a pedestrian plaza, connecting the Fountain of the Rings with the rest of the park all on one level.

The public will have a new opportunity to buy commemorative bricks that will be placed in the plaza’s pavement.

Ideally, the Georgia World Congress Center and the Atlanta business and philanthropic community will take this opportunity to highlight Atlanta’s Olympic legacy.

The Olympic exhibit could be moved to the park.  The flags of all nations that have hosted the Olympics since 1896 could decorate the green space.  And plaques could be placed around the park, informing people of the role the games played in Atlanta’s history.

Let’s be bold and creative as we begin to spruce up Atlanta’s front lawn.

Commentary: Women executives, board members make gains in Ga.

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

OnBoard has just completed its 2015 study with some surprising results. And the business climate in Georgia is looking favorable for women executives.

OnBoard is an organization that has been keeping track of the progress of women on corporate boards and in executive positions in Georgia for 23 years.

According to a report, in 2012 only one Georgia company, Coca-Cola Enterprises, had a critical mass of at least three women on its corporate board -- making up at least 25 percent representation. Today, 10 public companies in Georgia can say that. Credit Justin Taylor /

According to a report, in 2012 only one Georgia company, Coca-Cola Enterprises, had a critical mass of at least three women on its corporate board — making up at least 25 percent representation. Today, 10 public companies in Georgia can say that.
Credit Justin Taylor / positions in Georgia for 23 years.

In 1993, women held only 4 percent of the seats on the boards of Georgia’s public companies. By 2015, it is more than 12 percent, a record.

The story is similar for women serving as executive officers in Georgia’s companies. Fewer than 7 percent were women in 1999. This year, more than 12 percent of those in executive suites are women – another new record in the study’s history.

And that’s not even the biggest news from this year’s study.

Research shows the influence of women reaches a critical mass when there are at least three women on a corporate board — making up at least 25 percent representation.

Rona Wells, executive director of OnBoard, said in 2012 only one company in Georgia met that criteria — Coca-Cola Enterprises.

In this year’s study, there are nine. And if you consider Popeye’s recent addition of another female board member – there are actually 10 public companies in Georgia that have reached a critical mass of women representation.

John Brock, the CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, told me: “Three is a magic number. Once you get three of a diverse group, it makes a huge difference on a board.”

He should know. Four of his 12 directors are women.


Commentary: Atlanta is a major hub for mobile connectivity

Mobility Live! recently held its third annual conference in Atlanta.

Delta's Sky magazine features Ralph in the cover story of its March 2015 issue

Delta’s Sky magazine features Ralph in the cover story of its March 2015 issue

And our city has another claim to fame. It’s a hub of mobile communications, one of the fastest growing technology sectors.

Atlanta has become such an important mobility hub that the international association for mobile companies has located its North American headquarters here.

The driver behind the city’s mobility profile is AT&T Mobility, which is headquartered here. Top company executives are believers in Atlanta.

Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions, was one of the founders of Mobility Live! And Glenn Lurie, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, chairs the Mobility Task Force for the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Lurie interviewed Apple executive Eddy Cue about the groundbreaking partnership between AT&T and Apple over the roll-out and partnership with the iPhone less than a decade ago.

De la Vega said it’s just the beginning. The next big wave in mobility is the “Internet of Things.” That includes cars, homes and just about every item that can be monitored through mobile communications imaginable.

And much of the technology for mobility and connectivity is being developed in Atlanta – in partnership with Georgia Tech.

Although AT&T is headquartered in Dallas, $100 billion of the company’s $160 billion revenue is being delivered through de la Vega’s mobile division based in Atlanta.

And that positions Atlanta to be a leader in the future of mobile connectivity.


Commentary: Amusement rides good for Downtown Atlanta

Original Story on WABE

Who says the thrill is gone? If the owners of the SkyView Ferris wheel in downtown Atlanta have their way, the thrill is just beginning.

The owners plan to open a few new rides by next June, pending state and local approval.


A rendering of SkyTower at night (Special: SkyView)

The three new rides would offer people a variety of experiences. SkyDrop will strap people in a seated ride, elevate to 225 feet and drop in a free fall to the bottom in 4.6 seconds.

SkyShot will strap two people back to back and vault riders more than 200 feet into the air — ending with either a free-fall descent or one with somersaults.

The third ride — SkyTwist — is for people of all ages who want to enjoy the view without the adrenaline rush. Passengers will ride in a glass-enclosed gondola that will twist its way to the top of SkyTower – and circle around before making a gradual descent.

The SkyView Ferris wheel is so popular the owners have signed a 20-year lease for the land below SkyView and the proposed SkyTower — where two parking lots will become an urban amusement park.

Todd Schneider, a co-owner of SkyView, says of the nearly half a million people who have ridden the Ferris wheel each of the two years it’s been in business — half are from out of town while the other half live in metro Atlanta.

He says the rides are giving people in the suburbs a reason to visit downtown — adding to the area’s vitality.

There are differing opinions about using two prime blocks overlooking Centennial Olympic Park for amusement rides. Does it make our downtown feel like a carnival? Or does it add new life to the city — especially during evenings and weekends.

I believe the latter is true. SkyView and the proposed SkyTower add excitement and fun to our city — two key ingredients essential to a healthy downtown.

Commentary: Spotlight shining bright on Atlanta’s Westside

Original Story on WABE

So many players. So many agendas. So much history.

Richard Dugas Pulte Homes

Richard Dugas, CEO of Pulte Homes, at the announcement in December 2014 that he was going to chair the Westside Future Fund (Photo by Maria Saporta)

That sums up Atlanta’s Westside, the impoverished communities located across Northside Drive from the new Mercedes-Benz stadium and the Georgia Dome.

All eyes are on West Atlanta as the Westside Future Fund begins fundraising and coordinating efforts to revamp the area.

The fund is a private entity, established by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in December 2014.  It is chaired by Richard Dugas, CEO of Pulte Homes.

A myriad of people are seizing an opportunity for lasting revitalization in neighborhoods such as Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill, the Atlanta University Center and Ashview Heights … everyone from billionaires like Arthur Blank and Dan Cathy to grassroots leaders planting community gardens.

Reed and top business leaders established the Westside Future Fund to serve as a “community quarterback,” according to Fund chairman Richard Dugas.

The Fund is raising $4.5 million for operating support through 2018 – a period that would extend the organization into the next mayoral administration. And it is providing a neutral ground for everyone to coordinate activities.

These communities have been let down in the past, and Dugas asked for patience.  It could take 20 to 30 years to revitalize the area.

His top priorities are engaging the community and preserving the historic integrity of the Westside.

A socially-responsible investment fund is in the works that could be used to acquire blighted properties and make other physical improvements.

Jeff Sprecher, CEO of the InterContinental Exchange, pledged $5 million as soon as legal issues are worked out.  And Dugas believes Sprecher will be the first of many large investors.

Stakes are high, as the spotlight is shining bright on the Westside.

Let’s hope the Westside Future Fund becomes a model of success, rather than another case study in unrealized dreams.

Commentary: Atlanta has become a hub for negotiations

Original Story on WABE

Atlanta skyline - piedmont park

Atlanta is home to problem-solving institutions. During the civil rights era, Atlanta stood out as a city where black and white leaders could meet and work through the tense transition from segregation to integration. (Photo by : Frank Southworth – 2015)

The United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations agreed to a trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Atlanta on Oct. 4. It took more than five years of difficult negotiations to hammer out this agreement.

Atlanta’s spirit of mediation fits right into the image that came out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

Hala Moddelmog, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, called it a “thrill to host the final meeting — the one when they reached an agreement — in Atlanta.”

Some would say conflict resolution is in Atlanta’s DNA. During the civil rights era, Atlanta stood out as the one city in the South where black and white leaders could meet and work through the tense transition from segregation to integration.

Atlanta is home to problem-solving institutions like the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Carter Center — a gathering place for international leaders to address key issues impacting the world.

And a high-level group of local business leaders with a global focus established the new Atlanta Center for International Arbitration and Mediation at Georgia State University.

A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, pointed out the city’s advantages, saying: “We’ve got a big airport. We have got great meeting facilities. We are not expensive. And we are hospitable. It’s a great place to solve a problem. Maybe because of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we will be discovered.”

I agree. After all, mediation and conflict resolution is in our DNA.

Commentary: Underground Atlanta sale is a deal city can’t miss

T. Scott Smith

Developer T. Scott Smith is willing to invest up to $400 million to revitalize Underground Atlanta and its surrounding area. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Intro: The city of Atlanta’s sale of Underground Atlanta to a developer from South Carolina for $25.75 million was supposed to have closed on Sept. 30. Instead, both parties delayed the closing until Jan. 15 because the complicated real estate deal has run into some hurdles.Mayor Kasim Reed describes them as “solvable.”

Developer T. Scott Smith is willing to invest up to $400 million to revitalize Underground Atlanta and its surrounding area.

And he is anxious to take ownership of the property. Right now his company is managing the Underground retail center for the city but receiving no fees for the work. That’s only one reason he wants the deal to close.

Smith also wants to begin developing high-rise residential towers, a grocery store and other retail on the above ground area while revitalizing the historic storefronts and old city that we know as Underground.

But the state of Georgia owns a parking lot that sits between Underground and Georgia State University ─ a key bridge for the project. The city promised it would acquire the parking lot from the state so it could be incorporated in the overall development.

But securing that parking lot has proven to be more difficult than the mayor originally thought.

Underground is one of several signature projects that Mayor Reed wants to get completed during his term.

It should be the first to get done. The retail and entertainment complex has been a drag on the city’s books for years. And it sits at what is the most significant intersection in Atlanta ─ where MARTA’s two main lines cross. It is the heart of Atlanta.

Because of long-held perceptions by Atlantans against the Five Points MARTA Station and Underground Atlanta, it took an out-of-town developer to see the opportunity of this nexus.

If this deal were to fall through, there’s no telling how long that would set us back as a city or as a downtown.

Mayor Reed does have a lot on his plate, with redevelopment of Turner Field and the Atlanta Civic Center. But the city would be well-served if he focused on solving the problems related to the Underground deal before he moves on to anything else.

This one is too important to let slip away.


Boys’ High legacy lives on through $800,000 gift to Grady High

By Guest Columnist LEON S. EPLAN, 1946 graduate of Boys’ High of Atlanta and former planning commissioner for the City of Atlanta

Boys’ High closed in 1947 after providing more than 7,000 students with an excellent college preparatory education. Since then, the Atlanta Boys’ High School Alumni Association has been making significant contributions to Grady High School – the site of Boys’ High.

Commentary: Piedmont Park is being ‘loved to death’

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

The 2015 Music Midtown just wrapped up Sept. 20 in Piedmont Park ─ the fifth time the music festival has been held in Atlanta’s signature park. Every year, Music Midtown and the surrounding neighborhoods struggle over a myriad of issues ─ from lanes being shut down to the area of the park being closed off before, during and after the festival.

True confessions: I love Music Midtown.

Music Midtown Hozier

Crowds listen to Hozier on Friday – with “Super VIP” area in background (Photo by Maria Saporta)

I have been to every Music Midtown since it began at 10th and Peachtree in 1994. It was such a disappointment when Music Midtown disappeared between 2006 and 2010 ─ leaving Atlanta without a signature music festival.

In 2011, Peter Conlon of Live Nation, announced he was bringing Music Midtown back to Piedmont Park.

Since then, crowds have grown from 35,000 people in 2010 to roughly 125,000 by 2013 – and Music Midtown expanded to three stages over two days

Festival-goers were not deterred in 2013 by a severe downpour that left the normally green meadow a mixture of mud and trash. Sections of Piedmont Park were closed for months as the grounds were restored and the grass took root.

The last two years, the weather has been near perfect. This year, the traffic flowed much smoother than in the past. Despite having four stages, the festival felt less crowded than previous years.

Conlon attributed it to the closure of 10th Street, having more police and learning how to improve it every year. But he did not share attendance figures or talk about what it might mean for Music Midtown in 2016.

Music Midtown - Panic

People listen to Panic at the Disco on Saturday at the Belk Stage (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Music Midtown is a lightning rod in some communities surrounding Piedmont Park. Maybe people resent having a gated, ticketed event that benefits Live Nation rather than Piedmont Park.

Some folks may have a “not in my backyard” attitude. But as someone who has lived within two blocks of Piedmont Park for more than 30 years, I can tell you Music Midtown can’t solely be blamed for stress on park grounds.

The city of Atlanta has allowed so many event permits in Piedmont Park, our special oasis of green often turns into a special events space where cars and trucks are supposed to be prohibited.

At one time, the city and Piedmont Park Conservancy had a strict policy to limit the number of events in the park because it was “being loved to death.”

We have beautiful parks throughout the city that can be used for events ─ and the city should invite organizers to try alternative spaces. We also need to ensure all funds from permit fees go directly into park maintenance and not into the general fund.

Sadly, we have few options to host mega festivals in Atlanta. So we’re left having to shoehorn Music Midtown into our precious and overused Piedmont Park.

Commentary: ‘Eco’ Locomotives are good for Georgia

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

Norfolk Southern's new ''Eco'' locomotive is up to 25 percent more efficient than the train engines currently on our rails. Credit Norfolk Southern Corporation,

Norfolk Southern’s new ”Eco” locomotive is up to 25 percent more efficient than the train engines currently on our rails.
Credit Norfolk Southern Corporation,

Norfolk Southern unveiled its new “Eco” locomotive on Sept. 1 at Atlanta’s Inman Yard.

The new locomotive is up to 25 percent more efficient than the train engines currently rolling on our rails, making them even more environment-friendly.

It’s a no-brainer.

The more freight that travels on railroads rather than trucks and highways, the better off we will be.

That statement has never been truer than with the unveiling of the new “Eco” locomotive. Traditional trains carry one ton of freight 450 miles on one gallon of fuel — at least four times more efficient than trucks.

With the Eco locomotive, trains become at least five times more fuel efficient than trucks. That means cleaner air and less dependence on fossil fuels.

That’s not all.

The number of injuries and fatalities are far fewer on our rail corridors than on our highways.

With these benefits, it makes all the sense in the world to have a public and private partnership to move more freight by rail, rather than trucks.

Norfolk Southern is covering one-third of the cost of the 10 new locomotives, while the federal government is covering the remaining $38 million.

Imagine the benefits we could reap if we would take a similar approach in improving our rail infrastructure. Let’s forge a partnership between our government and the railroads to remove at-grade crossings, to improve the tracks so trains can reach higher speeds and provide more double tracks for more efficient movement of time-sensitive freight.

As part of that partnership — to make trains more competitive — railroads should allow passenger trains to operate on their tracks.

The more people we get off the roads, the less congestion and accidents we will have, the more fuel we will save and the cleaner our air will be.

I am a hopeless romantic when it comes to trains.

But seeing the new Norfolk Southern Eco locomotives, I know my heart is not lost in a nostalgic past.

Instead, it is fully grounded in an optimistic future.

Everyone wins when we move more freight — and more people — onto trains.

We should thank former President Jimmy Carter

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recently held an unprecedented press conference to disclose his cancer diagnosis and reflect on his life’s work. Carter, who will be 91 on Oct. 1, told journalists from across the globe that he has been as blessed as anyone.

It is hard to overstate the contributions that Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have made in Atlanta, Georgia, the nation and the world.

It’s time for Atlanta to say thank you to Jimmy Carter. Few men have had a greater impact on our world than our own President Carter.

As the 39th president of the United States, Carter is the only president to have come from Georgia. That alone would be reason to honor him.

Maria Saporta asks Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter what would give him the greatest satisfaction in the time he has left. Credit: Carter Center

Maria Saporta asks Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter what would give him the greatest satisfaction in the time he has left. Credit: Carter Center

But Carter’s life story is so much greater than the four years he served in office. Carter redefined what it means to be a former president. After leaving office, he created the Carter Center — a powerful place that has monitored democratic elections around the world, fought numerous diseases in the poorest parts of the world and promoted the cause for peace and human rights in every corner of the Earth.

As a result, Carter has helped Atlanta become a center for so many global initiatives — from Habitat for Humanity International to the elimination of some of the most devastating diseases known to mankind.

When asked what would give him the greatest satisfaction in the time he has left, Carter mentioned two initiatives that he has worked on for decades: peace in Israel — not that he holds out much hope on that one — and the eradication of the Guinea worm.

When the Carter Center first started its fight against Guinea worm disease more than 20 years ago, there were 3.6 million cases. Today, there are 11.

“I want the last Guinea worm to die before I do,” Carter said with a smile.

It was during the press briefing when I thought of all the ways Carter has made a difference in the lives of so many people, beginning with us in Atlanta and Georgia.

He helped put us on a global stage by fighting for causes that will make the world safer, healthier and more equitable for women, minorities and the poor.

Where Atlanta and Georgia would be without Jimmy Carter?

All too often, we forget to say thank you to important people in our lives while they are still with us. Did we ever give a proper thank you to civil rights leader Julian Bond before he left us?

Let’s not lose this window of opportunity to properly thank Jimmy Carter. We should put on a grand bipartisan celebration where we can simply say:

Thank you, Jimmy Carter. Thank you for a life well lived.

Atlantans fight to restore Gaines Hall after fire

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

Gaines Hall, built in 1869 as a dorm for Atlanta University, caught fire on Aug. 20. The next day, the Atlanta Fire Department said the historic building should be torn down for safety reasons. But local preservationists immediately objected, saying Gaines Hall can and should be saved.

Atlanta has a pretty dismal record when it comes to preservation.

Gaines Hall 2013

A boarded up Gaines Hall awaits its fate in 2013 (Photos by Maria Saporta)

All too often, vacant older buildings suffer from a condition known as demolition by neglect ─ they fall victim to the elements or catch on fire ─ giving property owners an excuse to tear them down.

And it’s rare for local governments in metro Atlanta to stand in the way of demolition.  It’s even rarer for them to find a permanent solution to preserve historic buildings.

So it appeared as though Gaines Hall was doomed.

The dorm had been owned by the struggling Morris Brown College, until earlier this year, when it was acquired by the city of Atlanta.

Would the fire seal its fate?

That’s when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed came to the rescue.

When I asked the mayor about Gaines Hall Monday, he told me emphatically, “We are going to find a way to preserve it.”


After all, Gaines Hall had been the stomping ground for leading African-American scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, among others.

The next day, the city sent engineers as well as the head of planning, the head of Invest Atlanta and the head of real estate to examine the building.

The official line is that they’re trying to assess the damage to see if it can be saved.

But Mayor Reed, someone who rules with an iron fist, has let his feelings be known. And city officials will be more motivated to preserve Gaines Hall rather than demolish it.

While I’m not always a fan of the mayor’s heavy-handed style, I have seen it work once before in saving a building.

The city had given Atlanta Housing Authority permission to demolish the Trio building in the King historic district.

Preservationists cried foul.

Mayor Reed agreed. And he controls most of AHA’s board members, so the historic building is being saved.

It’s time to do it again!

Just like the Trio building, preservationists are standing by, ready to help.

Mark McDonald, CEO of the Georgia Trust, said the Hancock County Courthouse in Sparta, designed by the same architect, had even worse fire damage than Gaines Hall. But Hancock County officials are preserving it.

If Sparta can do it, so can Atlanta.

For Gaines Hall to be a real success, we need to not only save the building. We need to give it new life so that it won’t fall victim again.

Mayor Reed, you can be an even greater hero if you come up with a permanent solution for Gaines Hall, one that will keep it standing for generations to come.

Atlanta has earned bragging rights for going ‘green’

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta


When it comes to the environment, it’s not often for Atlanta to have bragging rights.

kasim reed

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the city set a goal of 2 million square feet of property committed to reduced energy consumption. The city surpassed that goal. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

But when it comes to the Better Buildings Challenge — a national program to promote energy efficiency — Atlanta ranks No. 1.

Atlanta has outpaced all its other competitors when it comes to cities that have pledged to reduce energy consumption by 2020. Atlanta has more property square footage signed up in the program than any other city.

Mayor Kasim Reed said when they launched the program three years ago, the city set a modest goal of 2 million square feet of property committed to reduced energy consumption.  Not only did Atlanta meet that goal – the city exceeded it 50 times over.

And more property owners are signing up every day. MARTA is one of the latest partners — joining dozens of companies and organizations that want greener buildings.

The city of Atlanta and Central Atlanta Progress have been leading the initiative. But one organization deserves special mention — Southface.

For about 35 years, the nonprofit has been urging Atlantans to not only build greener buildings but to retrofit existing buildings with more energy- and water-efficient utilities.

In fact, thanks to Southface, Atlanta and Georgia have become national leaders when it comes to LEED-certified buildings. LEED is a national organization that designates how energy-efficient buildings are.

Just recently, Sierra Club magazine credited three Georgia college campuses as being among the greenest in the nation — Emory ranked 28th; Spelman ranked 131st; and West Georgia was 141st.

Not only that, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta has partnered with Southface and the Kendeda Fund to offer grants to nonprofits seeking to make their facilities more energy efficient. Again, this has become a national model. It’s a winning program because nonprofits save in utility costs, and our community reduces its carbon footprint.

Atlanta and Georgia often get criticized for urban sprawl and not enough transit and being too dependent on electricity generated from coal.

All the more reason to celebrate when there’s good news to share — such as the Better Buildings Challenge.

As Mayor Reed said at the announcement, now we need to work just as hard to stay No. 1.


Coca-Cola merger plans create uncertainty for Atlanta

Original Story on WABE by Maria Saporta

What a week for the Coca-Cola Company!

This week brought a lot of news on the Coca-Cola front. Credit Justin Taylor /

This week brought a lot of news on the Coca-Cola front.
Credit Justin Taylor /

First, Coca-Cola Enterprises announced a merger that will lead to Atlanta having one less Fortune 500 company but would make the company the largest independent bottler of Coca-Cola’s products.

Then the Coca-Cola company announced a new president and COO, a position that has not existed since 2007. James Quincey clearly is being positioned as the possible successor to Muhtar Kent after he retires.

Whenever a pebble is thrown into the Coca-Cola pond, it sends ripples, if not waves, of concern in Atlanta. Few cities and companies are more intertwined than Coca-Cola and Atlanta, a relationship that dates back to 1886.

It’s amazing Atlanta has been CCE’s headquarters this long. By 2010, the bottler’s business was totally in Europe.

But Atlanta never likes the prospect of losing a Fortune 500 company.

And even more importantly, there are few executives who have been more involved in the community than Coca-Cola Enterprises CEO John Brock. He has chaired the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and he currently chairs Georgia Tech’s capital campaign and the Commerce Club board. His wife, Mary Brock, also has ties to the community as a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, Atlanta’s WNBA basketball team. Brock is slated to become the CEO of the new Coca-Cola European Partners – which will be based in London.

But it is not yet known what will happen to the 125 CCE headquarter employees in Atlanta or the future relationship between the Brocks and Georgia.

At 67, Brock could be looking to complete the merger – which is expected to close in mid-2016 – before retiring from the company.

Meanwhile, James Quincey is planning to move from London to Atlanta later this fall. Although Quincey began his Coca-Cola career in Atlanta in 1996, he has worked mostly outside the United States, in Latin America and Europe.

But Coca-Cola Co. CEO Muhtar Kent said Thursday there is no cause for concern.

“We are all deeply committed to our home of 129 years,” Kent said in a call with reporters.

After all, Kent reminded reporters that, when he returned to Atlanta to run the company in 2007, he’d been away for 25 years and had only spent a year working at the headquarters.

For his part, Quincey said he was looking forward to getting reacquainted with Atlanta, saying the weather will be warmer than London.

Atlanta has weathered leadership changes at the Coca-Cola Co. multiple times over the years.

So here we go again.

Hopefully, soccer team can help unite fractured DeKalb County

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The Atlanta United soccer franchise plans to build its headquarters and $35 million training facility in DeKalb County. The DeKalb County Commission voted to approve the agreement with Atlanta United FC. It would involve a $12 million investment by the county. Credit Atlanta United

The Atlanta United soccer franchise plans to build its headquarters and $35 million training facility in DeKalb County. The DeKalb County Commission voted to approve the agreement with Atlanta United FC. It would involve a $12 million investment by the county.
Credit Atlanta United

The new Atlanta United soccer franchise announced Tuesday that it had chosen DeKalb County for its headquarters and $35 million training facility. The DeKalb Commission voted earlier that day to approve the agreement with Atlanta United FC, one that would involve a $12 million investment by the county.

“Finally, something good is happening in DeKalb County.”

That’s what someone told me after the 4-3 vote by the DeKalb County Commission, approving an agreement with Atlanta United to locate its headquarters near the intersection of Memorial Drive and I-285.

That joy was short-lived.

A day later, former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, who had been hired by DeKalb’s CEO Lee May to investigate possible corruption in the county, proclaimed that DeKalb was “rotten to the core.”

What a juxtaposition of highs and lows for Georgia’s fourth-largest county.

In recent years, several of DeKalb’s top officials have been indicted and found guilty of various ethical and legal breeches. It is a far cry from the DeKalb that existed 20 and 30 years ago when it was run by Manuel Maloof and Liane Levetan, both respected and powerful leaders in the region.

DeKalb leaders had hoped that the county’s tides were turning by winning the highly competitive Atlanta United headquarters.

On the day of the press briefing announcing the deal, the mood was uplifting, and team owner Arthur Blank, a co-founder of Home Depot, even became nostalgic about the decision. It was June 22, 1979, when Home Depot opened its very first store across the street from where Atlanta United plans to develop a 3,500-seat stadium and three additional soccer fields.

“It has come full circle,” Blank said, reflecting over his career. You see, for Blank, his investment in Atlanta’s Major League Soccer franchise is personal and close to his heart. He attended the event with his son, Joshua, an avid soccer fan and talented player.

Perhaps Atlanta United’s decision will improve the perception of a fractured DeKalb County and spark economic development in the Memorial Drive corridor.

But that may be too much to ask.

The county continues to be divided between North and South. Even the vote on the soccer facility was split, with the white commissioners voting against it, and the black commissioners voting for it.

It is too bad that the Atlanta United soccer franchise, located in “Central” DeKalb, has not yet united the county.

But as Blank said, the decision to base the soccer team at that location, felt like a spiritual journey for him, a coming home.

Let’s hope DeKalb’s journey will fuse a divided county into a united DeKalb.


MARTA commuter rail possible for Clayton County

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Passengers boarding a MARTA train in Atlanta ─ something Clayton County residents hope is in their future.

Passengers boarding a MARTA train in Atlanta ─ something Clayton County residents hope is in their future. Credit Scott Ehardt / Wikipedia

MARTA buses have been rolling in Clayton County since March, but what the county really wants is commuter rail.

The good news is that MARTA is working on it.

When Clayton County residents voted last November to join MARTA with a full penny sales tax, their ultimate goal was to be connected to Atlanta with commuter rail. MARTA has been holding constructive discussions with railway giant Norfolk Southern Corporation, which is a welcome change. When MARTA first started talking about commuter rail going to Clayton, Norfolk Southern openly questioned those plan ─ a move that could have killed the MARTA referendum.

Now the railroad and MARTA have reached an understanding, at least in principle. Norfolk Southern will not be sharing its existing tracks with any passenger service. But it is working with MARTA to study the possibility of adding a second set of parallel tracks within Norfolk Southern’s right-of-way.

Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said he was encouraged by that development. That means Norfolk Southern will be able to increase its freight traffic on its own tracks, and MARTA would have the exclusive use of a second set of tracks for passenger service. MARTA would build passing tracks along the way to allow for two-way travel throughout the day.

There is still much work to be done.

MARTA and its consultants will need to conduct engineering studies and an analysis on what transportation mode would be best for the corridor; heavy rail, light rail or bus rapid transit.

Before making a final decision, MARTA plans to work with an advisory group of Clayton leaders to get their input. Chairman Turner said all options are on the table, but the expectation in Clayton is that they will end up with rail service rather than bus.

In order to build and operate a commuter rail line, MARTA officials have said they would need to receive about 50 percent federal funding. It is premature to know how much a commuter rail line within Norfolk Southern’s right-of-way will cost.  It could take as many as seven to 10 years before commuter rail service begins.

But we’re off to a good start.

Norfolk Southern and MARTA seem to be working together, rather than at cross purposes. And most importantly, Clayton provides a template of what could happen in other counties ─ say Gwinnett or Cobb ─ if they decided to join MARTA.

That’s why it is so important to the Atlanta region for the MARTA-Clayton partnership to succeed.