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Guest Column

Creating “one Georgia” can help keep our competitors at bay

By Guest Columnist BRIAN LEARY, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc.

On a rural highway outside one of the South’s busiest ports, the largest German investment ever in the United States is on schedule and on budget to employ 2,700 employees by 2012.

ThyssenKrupp’s $3.7 billion investment is further proof that our agreeable weather and hospitality; expansive interstate, rail network and long-term prospects for growth are positive factors contributing to the ongoing interest and investment of the world’s largest and most successful companies.

Brian Leary

Where ThyssenKrup chose to build their new steel mill shouldn’t come as a surprise. The team that brought this technologically-advanced plant from an old world industry to the site has lured 300 foreign companies in just over a decade beating out it’s “more sophisticated” neighbors. That team is Alabama.

Save this thought for a moment and let’s start closer to home.

The Atlanta region grew by 1.1 million people between 2000 and 2008 – eclipsing all but one metro area (Dallas) in the country. We’re now home to over 5 million people. By 2040, another 3 million will arrive to enjoy our Southern hospitality, agreeable weather and 56 streets named, “Peachtree.”

At the height of our period of growth earlier this century, the Atlanta region was consuming over 100 acres a day of field, farmland and forest. At that rate, a scholar at the Brookings Institution anointed Atlanta the fastest growing civilization in the history of humanity.

I only point out these superlative numbers as a matter fact and without judgment. This growth has brought a great deal to Atlanta including many of those reading this column. But we’ve also seen that we can no longer play the grasshopper to the diligent ants of Charlotte, Nashville or Dallas.

All three cities have recently received hundreds of millions of dollars to build new transit lines, water infrastructure and public park space. How has Atlanta fared?

We were shut out. We received no federal funds for rail. We are facing a judge’s ruling that could cut off our access to Lake Lanier for our water supply in less than three years. And we are a city that has less park space per capita than most other regions in the country.

Atlanta is without a doubt the economic engine of the State of Georgia. Unfortunately, we have little control over the steering wheel. Power under the Gold Dome rests outside the region. Given our growth, congestion and environmental consumption, we have created an atmosphere of “Two Georgias.”

Representing Georgia’s 70th House District, Lynn Smith recently referred to what many Georgians living outside Atlanta feel about their Capital City as a team with all the money, all the best players, the best and biggest stadium…but no fans.

Georgia has been awarded $5 billion in stimulus funds while the State faces a $1 billion budget shortfall for the upcoming year. Texas on the other hand was awarded over $12 billion and has $9 billion in a rainy day fund. Adding insult to injury, Dallas was just given $23 million for a new streetcar.

As a state, we are 46th in revenues per capita and 31st in revenue from the federal government. How can we stay competitive with places like Alabama – now home to three foreign automobile assembly plants and one very new multi-billion dollar steel mill, without the tools other states are using?

Cities represent unique places that attract a collection of diverse ideas and backgrounds in an efficient form of civilization.

At a recent gathering at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Harvard professor and New York Times contributor, Ed Glasser, said, “the magical thing that happens when smart people connect in dense, large metropolitan areas like Atlanta is that they come up with new ideas, they come up with new industries, they come up with new occupations, they figure out new ways to employ people. As a result, it’s very hard to figure out where the new jobs will come from. I’d bet they’re more likely to show up in industries that are connected with the larger world because of the ability of cities to be gateways across oceans and continents.”

Recognizing the unique connection cities share, Atlanta has long been a partner with “sister cities” across the globe – looking to share best practices, lessons learned and fellowship among a diverse network of urban places.

Now 18 strong, the world is a smaller place with a partnership that stretches from Copacabana Beach in South America, across the Atlantic to the Austrian Alps, down to the Holy Land and out to the Far East. This cooperative membership has been successful in building an international spirit of camaraderie but is incapable of using its collective voice to solve our water issues, secure new funding for transportation or attracting multi-billion companies to employ our residents.

It is time to make our state a much smaller place.

A handful of Georgia’s largest cities collectively represent close to 80 percent of the state’s entire population. To date, there has been little intra-city cooperation around the collective challenges and opportunities uniquely facing these dense fertile grounds for new ideas and industry. One Georgia, united in voice, can demand progress at home and attract investment from abroad.

Back to ThyssenKrupp and their close to $4 billion bet on Alabama. There’s no accident this German conglomerate is joining Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes-Benz by making such a substantial investment in our western neighbor.

Surely, each would have been able to thrive here in Georgia with our tremendous port and rail infrastructure, our world-class institutions of higher learning and the international airport (where they change planes to get to Alabama). Our competing cities and states have not taken Atlanta and Georgia’s ascendance lying down but have made the decision to develop and use the tools necessary to turn the tide.

As we enter the next decade and have the opportunity to voice our opinion at the ballot box, let’s expect answers by being engaged…in the issues and in our communities.

Who we elect does make a difference. And from Atlanta’s perspective, who the next resident of the Governor’s mansion is as important as who has the corner office at City Hall.

While we have a long way to go to restore Georgia as a leader nationally, we must start at home and regain our position as the unquestioned leader in the Southeast.

We owe it to ourselves to find our own voices, not from the far edges of talking heads and political celebrities but from our own informed thoughts and opinions.

My politics are neither right nor left, but forward. I believe in Atlanta. I believe in Georgia. And I believe we have the best and brightest to solve any problem.

None of the challenges we face are unique, nor are the solutions. We simply need great men and women to recognize the problem, devise an answer and implement the solution — great men and women like you reading this right now.


  1. Yr1215 April 12, 2010 9:00 am

    I feel like this article was short on substance, although I suppose it was long on cheerleading. To the extent any contents can be discussed, I should point out what is widely known but completely missing from this article: Alabama won all these new industrial companies with giant tax incentives. Perhaps economically unintelligent incentives. Either way, nothing stopped Georgia from winning these opportunities other than not wanting to give away hundreds of millions in incentives.

    I’m not against incentives, I think businesses are overtaxed already in this country. But Alabama didn’t win the business due to better transportation infrastructure, a better educated workforce, or a reliable water supply (south Georgia has plenty). While these issues are real issues for Georgia, they’re unrelated to winning big industrial economic development opportunities.

    And connecting Atlanta (a point hinted at, but not really discussed) to other Georgia cities with rail transportation might make a lot of economic development sense, but it won’t stand on its own 2 legs for a long time. All the other Georgia cities are far too small to make intrastate rail transit intelligent. Of course, interstate rail transit (to Nashville, Charlotte, Birmingham) and intracity transit (connecting Cobb, Gwinnett, and other populous counties) makes better sense.

    Perhaps what is most glaring in this article is what is missing in this wide ranging diatribe. For someone who is supposedly leading the Beltline effort, one would reasonably think some reference might be made to the Beltline. Or one can even presume he could spend the entire article writing about what one presumes he knows the most about, the Beltline. Perhaps Leary is bored with the Beltline already and is now running for some statewide position? It’s just beyond me why the “leader” of a very important city project would dedicate so much time writing about anything other than the Beltline.

    This whole article seems a disorganized agglomeration of platitudes and random, mostly disconnected, facts. I imagine my comments do as well. Garbage in, garbage out.Report

  2. Yr1215 April 12, 2010 9:10 am

    Let me clarify a point:

    “While these issues are real issues for Georgia, they’re unrelated to winning big industrial economic development opportunities.”

    These issues are ones that people in Georgia rightly care about. But Georgia already has these things, at least relative to Alabama. Again, Georgia didn’t lose to a place like Alabama because of what Georgia believes are some major shortcomings. With all due to respect to our western neighbor, it lost to Alabama because of incentives.Report

  3. BubbaSparks April 12, 2010 1:38 pm

    All these industries you were banking on are 20th century thinking…let’s focus on the future – Energy Efficiency – and training our people for a ‘green economy’. Here is a good article explaining why we don’t need a new steel mill or three more car manufacturers.


  4. Mason Hicks April 12, 2010 1:42 pm

    Maybe so, but Mr Leary makes a completely valid point about the metro-regions needing to coordinate. That hasn’t been happening. I would like to hear more from the other cities to see if they see our common ground.
    I might add one other car factory to the list of Alabama victories. Sonny Perdu in all his brilliance, had the Kia plant located essentially on the Alabama border. Where do you think the workers live? I’m not meaning to suggest that I have researched this, but I have a good idea that many of them cross a state line getting to and from work.Report

  5. Yr1215 April 12, 2010 2:19 pm

    I’d rather Georgia be the next Washington State (and Atlanta the next Seattle or Chicago) and let Alabama be the next Michigan / Detroit.

    Jefferson County / Birmingham is already on its way there.Report

  6. Yr1215 April 12, 2010 2:36 pm

    Mason, I’m not disagreeing with your belief that metro regions need to coordinate. But I’m not sure Leary said that they need to better coordinate. This article is so plastered with generalities that one can read almost anything into this.

    I’m not even 100% sure he was referring to some things I referenced (intra-state rail transit). He may have just been saying “can’t we all just get along” in Georgia. Come to think of it, after I have re-read and re-read this questionable writing, there are only 2 tangential references to transportation in the whole thing.

    This article is just a head scratcher. And not because it was profound.Report

  7. Brian Leary April 12, 2010 10:48 pm

    Atlanta & Georgia’s future isn’t dependent on “beating” Alabama or by becoming the Detroit of the South. That wasn’t my point. The point is that we aren’t staying competitive with Dallas, Charlotte, Nashville or even, yes, Alabama because we have proven incapable of making regional decisions & investments regarding the built & natural infrastructure necessary to maintain our economic advantage. Transportation is a glaring example. Ignore Alabama’s recent wins (highlighted globally in the press) and know they & other southern states are developing (or have developed) new state-wide funding sources for transportation.

    Pick Tennessee, North Carolina or Florida – plenty of examles where we are losing ground.

    I love the Beltline and believe it represents Atlanta’s greatest opportunity to connect 45 neighborhoods through transit, trails, parks & development but also recognize that we as a state need to come together around solutions for transportation, education, economic development & the environment.

    Read the news for the Beltline’s progress. Read Maria’s column on how the City & State can progress.Report

  8. Mason Hicks April 13, 2010 8:04 am

    Brian, Believe me, I am completely with you. I wish we’d met before I left the Metro area. I followed your taking over the position, and I wish you the best of luck. About “beating-up on Alabama”, the important thing is that we are at severe risk of repeating the same mistakes that Alabama made in the 1960s to place themselves in a position where they now are easily ridiculed as opposed to being the capital of the Southeast as they could have been. Yr1215 is correct that their recent success at attracting international car factories to locate there is largely due to state tax incentives. But cars factories per say, are really irrelevant to this discussion. They are an in fact, an anomaly. The auto-manufacturing industry has a vested interest in steering the all discussions away from the idea of people having access to transit alternatives. Having just said that, just last week I stepped out of a Paris area RER station and found myself standing outside the entry to a large Renault plant as hundreds of workers were leaving, and filing the station I just left; but, “c’est Paris”. Heavy industrial sites, like car-manufacturing plants are typically best suited to be outside, perhaps at the fringe of metropolitan areas. I may be wrong-headed about this but I don’t really think that they are what we are trying specifically to attract into Metro-Atlanta in the first place. Their ratio of employees per acres developed does not amount to the density that is going to enhance the livable quality of Atlanta, nor our neighboring communities. Your point about coordinating our influence efforts was a major point of discussion with a transportation stimulus working group which I participated last summer, while representing Citizens for Progressive Transit. Jim Durrett, at the time with Livable Centers Initiative headed these discussions. I suspect that you and Jim have already had discussions of your own on this topic.Report

  9. scott April 13, 2010 11:48 am

    We can discuss auto manufacturing or we can point to the number one problem we face as the State of Georgia. Our state government is broken, hideously so. Everything I read about Preston Smith’s speech on the senate floor seems to praise him for standing by his ideals. I’ve yet to read anywhere that his ideals are just flat out wrong bordering on ignorance of economics. To make a pledge of no new taxes under any circumstance is pandering at best. As long as we have a legislature that has this mindset we are going nowhere fast. The legislators refuse to even let voters have the option to tax themselves locally if they chose. There is not 1…thats a big fat 0, reps from Atlanta or the metro region on the conference committee deciding the fate of the transportation bill. That alone tells me its doomed. You have to focus on and fix major things first and focus all resources in doing so. Jill Chambers, Chip Rogers (who for some reason in an interview doesn’t think people in Woodstock have to drive through Cobb to work so why should they pay for public transit), and many others are enemy #1 to transit. Thats where the focus needs to be. Removing these clowns has to happen before we can achieve anything. Lofty ideas are just that if you dont remove the major roadblocks (no pun intended) one at a time.Report

  10. Yr1215 April 13, 2010 2:21 pm

    Scott. I agree.

    But I’ve already given up on the state (at least for now). The best the city of Atlanta can do is find ways to partner with Dekalb and other like minded counties to find ways to grow their tax base by attracting residents and businesses. This will provide additional tax revenue to help the city grow and fund some of the necessary infrastructure improvements.

    Who knows, maybe the census will help, maybe we’ll get a new governor or a better slate of legislators. But I find it unlikely.

    Atlanta-Dekalb is on its own. Time to fix the problems we can. I think Reed is on the right track.Report

  11. Yr1215 April 13, 2010 2:46 pm

    Brian – ah so there was a point. Glad to hear it.

    So we need better regional thinking. Fabulous. Please go join the other 300 business leaders and Atlanta city leaders that have thus far failed down at the Capitol and lead the kumbaya session necessary to convince our state legislators of this.

    In the meantime, I think Atlanta government and business leadership should just keep focusing on growth, and third-tier cities like Savannah, Macon, Augusta and Athens should as well. When we’re all drowning in growth together, I suppose someone will start thinking regionally. Until then, I wouldn’t bet on it.

    Money and power talk, BS walks. When Atlanta metro leaders get the gumption to start using their leverage over rural Georgia, maybe progress will happen. I think this unlikely because rural Georgia doesn’t really need much from the state (although they get plenty). The deck is stacked in their favor. When urban legislators get on the same page and figure out how to change that, we’re on our way. Until then, we should probably just take a nap a suppose.

    20 years from now we’ll probably make some headway. In the meantime, Atlanta needs to do what it can on its own.

    Good luck with the Beltline. I’d suggest finding a new funding source other than TADs. Property values aren’t going up for a while. While I’m excited about the new Beltline “hiking path” (which is progress of a sort), it kind of screams: “you’ve reached the autobahn, please proceed at 30 miles per hour.”

    Pardon my vitriol. I’m more (positively) fired up about our mayor. The state of Georgia and the seemingly directionless commentary of certain residents are sore subjects.Report

  12. Yr1215 April 13, 2010 3:04 pm

    One addendum: filing my taxes at 1am last night probably did not put me in the right frame of mind for writing today. At least the 47% of Americans who don’t pay any federal taxes anymore didn’t have to worry about this.Report

  13. Scott April 13, 2010 9:29 pm

    I’m sorry Yr1215, but I am not convinced that nothing can be done. Like you said, money talks but I dont see a lot of capitol flowing to challengers of these morons… Jill Chambers has a viable challenger as follows…lets see if there is some follow thru cash…:

    Elena Parent, an Atlanta attorney and former legislative aide for State Senator David Adelman (D-42), has joined the race to unseat State Representative Jill Chambers (R-81).

    On July 1st, Parent filed the necessary paperwork with the Georgia Ethics Commission to create a campaign committee. This will allow Parent to begin raising funds for the 2010 election campaign.

    Parent is currently the Director of Development at HOPE Atlanta, an organization dedicated to the prevention of homelessness. Parent holds both a BA and JD from the University of Virgina and it’s school of Law.

    First elected to the General Assembly in 2002, State Rep. Chambers has won re-election three times with an average margin of victory of 12 points. In 2008, Barack Obama carried the 81st district with 53% of the vote, while Chambers defeated blogger and political activist Chris Huttman by 9%.Report

  14. Yr1215 April 14, 2010 10:14 am

    Maybe so. But a lot more have to be turned out than just Chambers. We shall see.Report

  15. Widmerpool April 15, 2010 2:18 pm

    Good point about Elena Parent.

    She’s smart and attractive (that’s the world we live in, people).

    She should defeat that clown Chambers.Report

  16. professional skeptic April 15, 2010 5:09 pm

    Thanks very much for the info on Elena Parent, Scott.

    She is smart, well educated and mindful of the issues impacting Georgia the most.

    I agree with you, Yr1215… Metro-Area legislators need to get on the same page. Electing Ms. Parent to office and giving that obstructionist, MARTA-hating harpy Jill Chambers the boot seems like the perfect place to start.Report

  17. Yr1215 April 15, 2010 6:21 pm

    PS, I thought the same thing. I pitched in what little I don’t have to the campaign.Report

  18. professional skeptic April 15, 2010 6:26 pm

    Mr. Leary:

    Thank you for the column and your leadership with the BeltLine. I very much look forward to the BeltLine vision becoming real — especially the light rail transit portion.

    Let’s be clear, though. Having lived in Atlanta and paid close attention to state and local politics for eleven years, I can tell you one thing: rural, conservative Georgia hates Atlanta. I appreciate the energy and positive tone in your column, but let’s not mince words:

    Rural. Georgia. HATES. Atlanta.

    As long as rural Georgia maintains an iron grip on state politics, rural Georgia will do everything possible to stifle growth, progress and community development in Atlanta.

    As long as rural Georgia calls the shots, transit projects in Atlanta will never receive financial support from the state.

    Not only will we not receive state funding for transit, but rural Georgia politicians will actively prohibit Altantans from taxing themselves to fund transit projects in our city. Rural Georgia politicians will actively shut out Atlanta-area legislators from participating in the discussions and negotiations that shape state transportation policy.

    In short, as others have said, we Atlantans are on our own until the balance of power can ever shift. For the third year in a row, a state-wide transportation funding bill is in danger of dying on the vine. Politicians from rural Georgia waste precious time debating frivolous issues and enacting non-essential legislation, knowing full well that vital issues like transportation will sit on the back burner until time runs out in the legislative session.

    Rather than hope that rural Georgia politicians will someday change their minds and approve additional funding mechanisms for transit projects like the BeltLine, we (meaning Atlanta businesses, Atlanta residents and the members of the BeltLine leadership) need to redouble our efforts to fund the BeltLine ourselves.

    I just checked your website at beltline.org. Your capital campaign seems stalled at $30 million. Why not establish a fundraising effort similar to that of Public Raido? Get the message out to individual Atlanta residents that the BeltLine desperately needs our support? If WABE Public Radio can raise several hundred thousand dollars of small-dollar contributions via semi-annual fundrasing campaigns, why can’t the BeltLine do something similar?

    Enlist businesses to match our contributions. Remind Atlanta residents to seek matching contributions from their employers. Yes, times are tough, but somehow Public Radio still manages to communicate its financial needs and cover its annual expenses.

    The BeltLine CAN and WILL happen if Atlanta takes ownership of it. We WILL defeat the obstructionist, self-important attorneys who challenge our TADs. We WILL achieve our goals of community redevelopment, neighborhood cohesiveness and expansion of parks and transit in spite of a rural Georgia that hates and despises us.

    We can start by designing and implementing a better coordinated grassroots fundraising effort. Take out radio ads on WABE. Send out flyers twice a year. Come visit our monthly neighborhood meetings (Grant Park, SAND, East Atlanta, Cabbagetown, Brookhaven, Edgewood, etc., etc.) and hammer home the message that the BeltLine needs our support. Follow up with regular progress reports and updates on budget-to-actual funds raised (again, like Public Radio).

    Hell, I’ll go home right now and write a check (IF I can find space on MARTA tonight with all the Tea Partiers on board) to put my money where my mouth is.

    Obstructionist attorneys might seek to delay and reduce our TAD funding, and rural legislators might prohibit us from implementing a transit sales tax… but by God, they can’t stop us from sending in $5, $10, $20 at a time directly to the BeltLine itself. Anyone else with me?

    If not, we can all just take naps like Rip Van Winkle while we wait for the political winds to change.


    If anyone else besides me wants to support the BeltLine, here’s the link:


  19. Yr1215 April 15, 2010 6:37 pm

    PS, that’s the spirit. Love it! I’m a huge fan of the PATH component, so I donate money to PATH with the request it go toward Beltline PATH construction. Those are the kind of efforts that will make a difference!

    Granted, a few hundred thousand (or my few hundred) won’t fund a billion dollar project, but it is a hell of a start. Every avalanche starts with a few slipping snow flakes.

    I’m personally a fan of the volunteer days. Free labor can accomplish huge amounts. These have not been marketed and used widely enough. The Beltline should have volunteer days EVERY weekend between March and October.

    Read this inspiring Washington Post article. It is very, very relevant.


  20. professional skeptic April 16, 2010 12:13 pm

    Yr1215: Thanks for the WA Post link. Very inspiring. In Atlanta, too, we are up against legions of corrupt state officials, and we can no longer wait for them to act on our behalf.

    By taking matters into our own hands — through increased number of volunteer days and a more active fundraising effort — we can certainly shorten the time needed to get the BeltLine up and running. Maybe even in the next 10 years, as Mayor Reed would like to do.

    You know one of the best parts about making donations to the BeltLine? It reduces our taxable income, meaning less of our tax dollars get wasted on rural politicans’ pet projects like Go Fish ponds and multi-lane highways to nowhere.Report

  21. Yr1215 April 16, 2010 1:33 pm

    Think about this math. 600,000 some odd Atlanta citizens. If only 1% were engaged, that’s 6,000 people. If they worked 10 hours per weekend, 8 month per year, that’s 1.9 million labor hours. That much labor can move mountains.

    There’s not even the need for that much labor until planning is finished. But with the untapped labor and financial resources of this city, the beltline, short of the heavy machinery and engineering components, could be completed at little or no cost to the city. Of course, the residual work is some of the most expensive. But I think it would be shocking how much could be accomplished if ABI and the city really rallied around this concept.

    Certainly the PATH component (with training), clearing, cleaning / trash removal (as has occurred), landscaping work, even minor grading work could be accomplished by volunteers and donations. I’d suggest the need to run advertising in every local publication (AJC / Creative Loafing / neighborhood newspapers) as a pre-requisite.

    The light rail, bridges, and heavy grading will obviously require machinery. But the light rail will likely be the last component anyway.Report


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