By Maria Saporta
A sense of history filled the annual meeting of Central Atlanta Progress Thursday morning as speaker after speaker paid homage to the city’s past by looking to its future.
A surprise element of the program came when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed appeared — primarily to highlight the recent approval by the Atlanta City Council for a new retractable roof stadium for the Atlanta Falcons.
“I don’t think there’s a better team owner in the United States than Arthur Blank,” said Reed, who also thanked Falcons President Rich McKay and Frank Poe, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, for their perseverance during the negotiations.
“After nine weeks, I think we are pretty tired of each other,” Reed joked. “In very difficult times, your leaders are getting pretty difficult things done…. When folks were writing the obituary on the new stadium, we got together and got it done. That’s the story of Atlanta. That’s the story of you.”
Then Reed invited Blank, McKay and Poe to join him on stage, which also had not been part of the program.
Again, Blank mentioned the historical nature of getting to this point.
“The last nine weeks have been incredible. We think this will be a model,” said Blank, who thanked City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, Invest Atlanta President Brian McGowan as well as Poe and his board for working on the $1 billion deal for two-and-a-half years.
“We will build a world-class stadium; there’s never been any question about that,” Blank said. “Beyond that…, we want to make a difference in people’s lives. We are heavily committed to the westside of Atlanta, not just for the four years we’ll be building the stadium but for the next 40 years.”
He added that his family foundation wants to revive the neighborhoods around the stadium into thriving communities.
CAP’s annual meeting began with Jamil Zainaldin, president of the Georgia Humanities Council, telling a story about how the Battle of Atlanta on Sept. 2, 1864 actually helped re-elect President Abraham Lincoln and helped bring an end to slavery. With the surrender of Atlanta, that brought a “renewed wave of hope” to Union troops.
Zainaldin also told CAP members and guests a little known story about how Atlanta’s mayor at the time, James Calhoun, was pro-Union. He sent a peace delegation to meet Gen. William Sherman at the intersection of what is now Marietta Street and Northside Drive. Bob Yancey, a relatively prosperous slave who was basically living as a free man in Atlanta, was part of that delegation.
The historical theme continued during the awards presentation.
The Dan Sweat Award, named for the late CAP president who headed the organization for 15 years, was given to Ann Cramer, a community activist who recently retired as an executive with IBM.
Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, described how Sweat had been a mentor to her and to so many, and how Cramer had been a friend and part of Atlanta’s community fabric for 40 years.
“Dan was our mentor,” Cramer agreed when accepting her award. “He ensured that women got to be put at the community table. I was one of those women.”
The 2013 Turner Broadcasting Downtown Community Leadership Award was given to Clifford Kuhn, a history professor at Georgia State University who specializes in 20th Century Southern history. His publications include: Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1918-1948.
When accepting his award, Kuhn remembered interviewing a then-infirm Sweat to get an oral history of his memories of Atlanta. Although the common perception was that Sweat and Mayor Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, had an adversarial relationship, Kuhn said it was a much more complex exchange. In fact, Jackson remembered Sweat fondly when Atlanta Gas Light and WSB-Radio put a Shining Light Award in his honor shortly after he had passed away.
As Kuhn said, it was all about an “ongoing difficult dialogue,” which in many ways describes the history of Atlanta.
By the way, Egbert Perry, founder of the Integral Group, has agreed to stay on for a third year as CAP’s chairman.