By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on February 13, 2015
Dan Cathy has a recurring nightmare.
Looking to the future when the Atlanta Falcons are playing in their new state-of-the-art $1.4 billion retractable roof stadium, the CEO of Chick-fil-A Inc. fears Atlanta will be exposed as a true tale of two cities.
“The horror that I think of is when the Goodyear blimp is flying over the new stadium with Atlanta’s beautiful skyline in the background,” Cathy said. “And then the blimp shows the area on the other side of the stadium and it looks like a scene out of Baghdad.”
Cathy is sounding a community alarm: Atlanta has a moral responsibility to address the inequities that exist in the city and the state, he believes. The best place to target those inequities is in the communities west of the new Atlanta Falcons stadium — one the poorest areas with the highest levels of crime and lowest high-school graduation rates in the city.
“The great divide in the state of Georgia is Northside Drive,” Cathy said. “I have a very deep conviction about what it says about our society; about what it says about our own backyard. This is happening on our watch. We have got to fix it.”
Cathy said it is critical that all the initiatives currently underway to improve the west side of town join forces and coordinate their efforts. That way real progress can be made in the lives of the people who call Vine City and English Avenue home.
“I just want to put out a plea for all of us to set aside the politics and any self interests and do what we can in the best interest of our city — especially in this time of crisis,” Cathy said.
As someone who started working with homeless organizations 15 years ago, Cathy has always gravitated to practicing his Christian beliefs. In the past several years, he has teamed up with the nonprofit organization City of Refuge, which is trying to transform the 30314 ZIP code, an area that includes Vine City, English Avenue, Washington Park and several other distressed communities.
Bruce Deel, the founder of City of Refuge, easily cites the challenges. The 30314 ZIP code has some of the highest incidents of crime, foreclosures, poverty levels, incarceration rates and teen pregnancies in the Atlanta region.
That is why eight to nine times a year, Cathy takes new Chick-fil-A operators on a “Vision and Values” tour where they visit stores as well as model examples of nonprofits that are turning people’s lives around — be it Tom Cousins’ East Lake Foundation or Deel’s City of Refuge.
“I take them by one of these centers so they can see how we can use our business to address social issues,” Cathy said. “As these operators go all over the country, we want them to use the same skills that we do to sell chicken to make their communities better.”
Cathy and Deel wanted this reporter to see first-hand the stark contrast of a stadium sandwiched between the shining city on a hill and a scene that he had described as Baghdad.
On a hill overlooking downtown at the corner of Sunset Avenue and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard N.W., Cathy walked inside several burnt-out houses. Inside one of them, he saw someone rolled up in a blanket in the middle of a cold February day.
Deel mentioned that most of the burned-out houses become that way because homeless people start a fire because they’re just trying to stay warm, and because the wood is so old, the houses go up in flames.
The next morning, Cathy sends a text to the group saying he can’t get the image of the person rolled up in a blanket out of his mind. A plan is made to return to the house the next day to see if Cathy and the City of Refuge can offer the homeless person any assistance.
Just the blanket is there.
“When we saw him yesterday rolled up in a blue blanket, we didn’t know if it was a guy or a gal, or what was there. It looked like somebody maybe was asleep so we didn’t want to interrupt him,” Cathy said, perched on a wall outside the remains of the house. “But I can tell you last night after we left, I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind that a person rolled up in a bedroll in a house that was burned out like that… We didn’t know if that person was male or female or if that person was dead or alive.”
Cathy thought about the story in the Bible of the Good Samaritan — how the first two people saw suffering and just walked on by. “I just felt like we left somebody there,” Cathy said. “I started to feel really bad about it.” He reached out to Bruce Deel and asked him — what’s the right thing to do?
“We just have to search our own hearts and souls and let compassion for people kind of overcome the schedules and the ways we are spending our time and what our priorities are and try to bring them in line — in light of the challenges that we face here in a community like this,” Cathy said. “I hope that maybe more of us can come and see what’s here. Let it touch our hearts. Let it touch our souls. Let us be moved by what we see, and then find out amongst ourselves what would the Lord have us do.”
Cathy also remembered a saying that his late father — Truett Cathy — often used.
“My dad taught me a lot of lessons in life,” Cathy said. “One of those is that there’s a solution to every problem. It may take you a while to get there, but there’s a solution to every problem. Even in this situation, there’s a solution to this, we can figure this out.”
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has committed $15 million in help improve communities on the westside as part of an initiative that will parallel the construction of the stadium. Falcons owner Arthur Blank has even said that the community legacy will be more important to his overall success than the stadium project.
In addition, the city of Atlanta’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta, has committed another $15 million in Westside Tax Allocation District dollars to the area. The city also is applying for a $30 million federal Choice grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Friendship Baptist Church has hired a joint developer and master planner to create a “Downtown West” project on property it owns along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Mitchell Street.
And the Atlanta Committee for Progress, a group of top CEOs, recently established the Westside Future Fund to help coordinate other private investment — corporate and philanthropic donations — in the area. Richard Dugas, CEO of Atlanta-based home builder PulteGroup Inc., is chairing that initiative.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told members of the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta on Feb. 10 that he took Dugas and The Home Depot Inc. CEO Craig Menear for a two-hour bus tour of the area on the previous Saturday.
Also, the Chick-fil-A Foundation previously had wanted to build a major youth sports and community activity center in honor of company founder Truett Cathy in the area. But a deal to lease property from Morris Brown College fell apart.
Dan Cathy said the foundation has no specific plans at this time, but it is open to being one of the partners in the rebuilding of the communities in the 30314 ZIP code — calling it the “most left-behind ZIP code” in Georgia.
“We stand here ready to play any type of role we can to help. We love this city,” Cathy said. “There’s some energy here despite the devastation and the similarity to Baghdad… I don’t think this represents what Atlanta really is. We have been the story of the phoenix, a city rising out of the ashes.”
Cathy also said that we as a community cannot give up on our ultimate vision of having every one enjoy our city’s success.
“We’ve got to keep the prize before us,” he said. “The prize is the potential to have a vibrant, meaningful community here that’s participating in the incredible growth that we are seeing all over metro Atlanta.”