By Maria Saporta
Housing affordability and transit will be key focus areas of the 2018 LINK trip to San Diego, which will take place from May 9 to May 12.
Ever since 1997, a group of more than 100 Atlanta leaders – representing governments, businesses and nonprofits – go to a different city to learn about the best practices that we can bring back to our region. And it also provides an opportunity for leaders from the 10-county region to get to know one another.
This will be a return visit to San Diego. LINK (Leadership, Innovation, Networking, Knowledge) first went to San Diego in 2001, when regional leaders were first exposed to a city that was investing in bus rapid transit (BRT).
Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said they decided to return to San Diego to see how the southern California city has implemented plans it had 17 years ago, to see what new challenges it’s facing and to explore whether those challenges “parallel” the issues confronting metro Atlanta.
“We know California is dealing with housing affordability,” Hooker said. “In San Diego, they estimate that they need 140,000 units of affordable housing. We have not quantified that number in the Atlanta region.”
Mike Alexander, director of ARC’s Center for Livable Communities, said that both Atlanta and San Diego are not building enough housing for middle-income families. But the State of California has done more to weigh in on the housing affordability crisis than Georgia.
But San Diego has a challenge that Atlanta does not have.
“More than 46 percent of their land is for conservation,” Hooker said. “Only 2 percent of their land is available for development in the region.”
But San Diego does have one major advantage over Atlanta. Most of the region’s 3.3 million residents reside in the County of San Diego, which has a total of 18 cities.
By comparison, the Atlanta region incorporates at least 10 counties – and dozens of cities.
San Diego does benefit from having a streamlined governance structure where one county can set the tone and policies for the entire region.
“They are actually able to launch regional efforts through their county,” said Stephen Causby, ARC’s manager of community partnerships who organizes the LINK trip every year.
Another area of focus in San Diego is its homeless population. Although it is the 17thlargest city in the country, San Diego ranks 4thwhen it comes to the number of homeless residents.
Jack Hardin, co-chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission on Homelessness, will be on the trip to provide a local perspective of Atlanta’s initiatives to reduce chronic homelessness and how it compares to San Diego.
Hooker said there will be a greater emphasis on this trip to directly tie the issues confronting San Diego with those in Atlanta by having local leaders provide insights during the trip – a real time response.
San Diego also is known as a center of innovation.
“It is known as a global leader in innovative technologies,” Causby said. “But small- and medium-sized firms that start there often move to other cities, such as Silicon Valley. Their goal is to attract research talent from all over the world. They are No. 2 in the nation for patents.”
But Atlanta has an edge in another way. San Diego only has two Fortune 500 companies (Qualcomm Inc. and Sempra Energy) while the Atlanta region now has 17 with the official relocation of WestRock’s headquarters from Richmond to north Fulton.
A couple of issues the LINK group will study are unique to San Diego – it has a tremendous military presence with more than 25 percent of the region’s jobs connected to the military. In 2016, the San Diego region had almost $9 billion in military procurement contracts.
The other unique issue San Diego faces is its relationship with Mexico. The greater San Diego region (also known as the CaliBaja megaregion) actually includes Tijuana and the Baja Peninsula. More than 49 million people, 930 million trucks and $4 billion in goods cross the San Diego-Tijuana border each year.
An area where San Diego and Atlanta do share much in common is transit. San Diego already has developed a couple of BRT corridors since LINK visited in 2001, and LINK participants will get to see BRT in action.
But San Diego also has been investing in a light rail system, which connects the city to one of the main border crossings – San Ysidro.
The LINK trip will include a host of key government leaders, including Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority as well as the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority; State Sen. Brandon Beach, Gwinnett Chair Charlotte Nash, Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson, Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, Rockdale Chairman Oz Nesbitt, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, Chattahoochee Hills Mayor Tom Reed, Douglasville Mayor Rochelle Robinson, Clayton Chair Jeff Turner, Union City Mayor Vince Williams and Henry Chair June Wood.
Recently-elected Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is not going. And neither is DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond nor Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce nor Fulton Chair Robb Pitts, who is running for re-election.
It may be a missed opportunity for the Atlanta mayor. In 2002, right after Mayor Shirley Franklin was elected, LINK went to Chicago, and Franklin was able to charm regional leaders, set the stage for her new administration to work in tandem with others and most importantly, to show how the mayor of the signature city can emerge as a national leader.
The trip will include a host of other notable leaders, including: Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center; Alicia Philipp, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta; John Berry, CEO of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Georgia; Robbie Ashe, chairman of MARTA’s board; Nancy Johnson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta; Tim Hynes, president of Clayton State University; Bill Bolling, chair of the Food Well Alliance; Ann Kaiser, vice president of economic development for Georgia Power; Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta; Michael Halicki, president and CEO of Park Pride; John O’Callahan, president and CEO of Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership; Anthony Rodriguez, co-founder of Aurora Theatre; Chris Appleton, founder and CEO of WonderRoot; Nathaniel Smith, founder of Partnership for Southern Equity; Sam Olens, counsel at Dentons; Pat Upshaw-Monteith, president and CEO of Leadership Atlanta; and Bob Voyles, founder of Seven Oaks Co.
The trip also will include several top leaders from the different chambers of commerce, business organizations and community improvement districts from throughout the region.
“LINK has been an invaluable resource for the Atlanta region,” said Doug Hooker, ARC Executive Director. “The lessons we learn and the relationships forged among participants have helped drive important innovation and collaboration back at home.”