Cobb County business leaders hold a pep rally at Cobb Chamber breakfast

By Maria Saporta

At its First Monday breakfast meeting, the Cobb Chamber of Commerce put together a like-minded panel to discuss the merits of voting for the regional transportation referendum on July 31.

Unlike a host of other panels that have included diverse views on whether the referendum is a good or bad idea, the Cobb Chamber panel, by design, was unanimous in its support for the one-percent sales tax.

Moderator Heath Garrett, a state government relations advisor, called the referendum “an historic opportunity” for the region. “Our economy works because of transportation,” Garrett said.

Ed Baker, publisher of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, said that the region’s “dirty big secret” has been its inability to tackle its educational and transportation issues.

“Atlanta is not a cool place anymore,” he said. “We need to be cool again.

Baker, who lives in Cobb, also described his home county as being “a fairly apathetic community.” He said it would be up to the business leaders in Cobb and around the region to get people out to vote for the referendum.

“I have great fear that we are that close to not passing this,” Baker said. (Some of the strongest opposition to the tax has come from constituencies in Cobb County, including the Tea Party).

Dave Stockert, CEO of Post Properties who has been co-chairing the pro-referendum campaign’s fundraising efforts, said that the financial success of his company has “been carried along by the success of Atlanta.” But in recent years, the perception of Atlanta has changed.

“I have defended Atlanta for 11 years,” said Stockert, who moved to the city in 1995. “A big part of that is that we have not invested in transportation as have Denver, Dallas and other cities.”

Stockert also said that Post caters to younger and more educated residents — people that every city welcomes.

“We don’t have the same sex appeal we once did,” Stockert said.

The third panelist was Paul Bennecke, a principal of Red Clay Strategies, which has been instrumental in the campaign for the referendum.

“I have got a lot of friends and family members who are conservative and Republican,” said Bennecke, conceding that those constituencies tend to be anti-tax and anti-government.

But Bennecke added that there is a role for government in public safety and transportation infrastructure. Plus, Bennecke said “there are some basic conservative principles around this referendum” — such as having extensive citizens’ oversight and having a 10-year sunset on the tax. That means it can’t be reinstated without another vote.

Baker also added that the tax and the transportation investments would inject an economic stimulus in the region’s economy at a time when it’s sorely needed.

Asked whether there was a “Plan B,” Stockert said this plan has been in the works for 15 years. Thinking there’s a “better plan leads you down the road of doing nothing, which is what we have been doing,” Stockert said.

The Cobb Chamber panel of all pro-referendum white men were basically singing to the choir — a room full of Cobb business leaders who have generally been in support of the tax.

What was less clear was whether the breakfast was a pep rally to get out the vote or whether it was a struggling campaign in need of an internal boost.

Either way, it will all become clear on July 31.

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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