By Maria Saporta
Regionalism took a big hit in July 2012 when the 10 counties in the Atlanta region defeated the Transportation Investment Act – a proposed one-cent sales tax for 10 years.
Since then, most transportation and economic development initiatives have been led by individual counties or cities while regionalism has taken a back seat.
But efforts continue to try to build a regional mindset in metro Atlanta.
For example, the Regional Business Coalition, with the leadership of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, collaborated with the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Council for Quality Growth on an all-day event – “On Board Atlanta: An In Town Inter-City Visit” – held on Oct. 10.
The idea was to build on the 20 years of annual LINK trips – attended by about 110 metro leaders – to other cities to see how they’ve addressed some of the same challenges Atlanta is facing.
Metro leaders, however, have wondered if the LINK trips could have a more lasting impact if they could be complemented by a similar program being held in Atlanta.
“I think it was an admirable first try,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission. “Overall, I give David Connell (president of the Cobb Chamber) and RBC a lot of credit for pulling it off. It is a good idea that we should try a few more times, before deciding whether it has sufficient merit.”
Connell was encouraged by the first On Board event.
“It is our intent to do this every year,” said Connell, who added that they will survey the attendees to decide how to plan the On Board event in future years. The first On Board intentionally touched on several issues usually tackled on LINK trips – transportation, infrastructure, education, economic development and civic engagement.
“We knew going in that it was going to be too long a day,” said Connell, even though most of the 400 attendees stayed for duration – from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Cobb Galleria Centre. “Next year, we probably would start it at 9 a.m. and finish after lunch.”
Also Connell said the Regional Business Coalition, which organized the event, likely would host it in a different part of the region every year.
The next On Board likely focus on two or three topics – possibly piggy-backing off the major themes from the previous LINK trip or the intercity trips that are done every year by the Cobb Chamber, the Gwinnett Chamber, the North Fulton Chamber and even Henry County.
At the same time, the Atlanta Regional Commission is evaluating its annual LINK trips to see how they can become more effective in broadening the perspectives of participants and for moving the region forward.
All these efforts are being done with the hopes of building regional relationships and helping local governments better deal with their individual issues by taking a regional approach.
Tad Leithead, a former chairman of the ARC who chairs the Cumberland Community Improvement District, said that when the 2012 referendum failed, several local officials who favored regionalism were not re-elected.
“That scared a lot of elected officials, who felt their constituents didn’t want them to participate,” Leithead said. “But on the big issues – transit, water, sewer, aging population – there are not local solutions. They have to have regional solutions. I have always felt that the Atlanta Regional Commission is a voice for regionalism. Give elected leaders the cover they need and help voters understand the need for regional cooperation.”
Hooker said the Atlanta region can’t let 2012 be the end of the conversation.
“We had a setback, but we didn’t give up,” Hooker said. “It takes a team.”
Michael Paris, president and CEO of Council for Quality Growth, said having the RBC, the ARC, and the Council work together “was a really great combination of organizations.”
He agreed with Connell that it was a really long day and covered a lot of territory.
“I think it’s a very good beginning point and a good format to pull people together,” Paris said. “I would be for continuing this and piggy-backing off of LINK. Let’s pick two or three things, and concentrate on them.
During the program in Cobb, Leithead said the next major initiative should be to expand transit throughout the region – especially in those areas not currently served by rail transit.
MARTA General Manager and CEO Keith Parker reinforced the point when he said that most of the major economic development announcements in the past year or two are being built near a rail station.
Another priority area should be civic engagement, which impacts every facet of our lives, said Bill Bolling, retired CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank who now chairs the Food Well Alliance.
“We all want to live in communities where citizens have a sense of pride and ownership,” Bolling said. “We need to build a community that’s…a safe place, a place that nurtures more respect for each other. How do we become the solution to what people identify is the problem in the community?
“We often get bogged down with language. We can all use more inclusive language. That’s the political reality we are in. We have a real shortage of civil and productive conversations. I believe we have a choice. We can live in fear or we can create new forms of communication,” Bolling continued. “What we are talking about is changing consciousness.”