Is downtown’s recovery a moment, a movement or something new in Atlanta’s history?
Is downtown’s recovery a moment, a movement or something new in Atlanta’s history?
By Michelle Hiskey
On July 3, you are invited to a new event at Centennial Olympic Park. Look Up Atlanta is billed as the biggest fireworks show in the Southeast, and organizers are hoping you will remember it as a turning point in the pandemic. This was the day that you came back downtown.
The idea intrigued me when the Georgia World Congress Center Authority asked me to write about this moment in history. I’m skeptical of trying to program someone else’s memory.
But the vibrancy of downtown Atlanta matters to all of us, and curiosity led me to a series of conversations with a cross-section of people who have a stake in downtown. Don’t we all?
The pandemic represents a time that none of us has seen before, and we’re all trying to figure out what the story is and will be.
Reset to better, with a slimmer workforce
As general manager, Ramon Reyes’ office at the Omni Atlanta Hotel at CNN Center overlooks Centennial Olympic Park, and the hotel is offering Look Up Atlanta packages where you can see the fireworks from your hotel window.
Reyes is a New Orleans native who moved here two weeks before Hurricane Katrina. His very pregnant wife stayed behind, and when the storm came so did her labor pains, so he personally knows what a major crisis looks like. (Their child was delivered at Northside, by the way.)
To Reyes, Look Up Atlanta is a milestone on the way to a stronger downtown.
“Anytime you go through a major event, like the pandemic or a hurricane, people come together,” he said. “And the camaraderie, the synergies that are created usually lead to you being a better version of yourself.”
He calls this moment a reset. Like others I spoke with, Reyes took a moment to bring up another issue integral to this point in Atlanta’s history. For him, that’s staffing.
Today, 350 associates work at the Omni Atlanta, covering 1,067 rooms and suites, and 150,000 square feet of meeting space. Remarkably, they are doing the work that 600 people did before the pandemic. In between were five months in 2020 when the hotel shut down completely.
“We are on pace to be better than we were before,” Reyes said. “But crucial to that are the agencies that develop the talent needed now and in the future. Coming back stronger is all going to be dependent on bringing our people back and putting them back to work.”
Secret sauce: generations (back) together
Melissa Proctor is the executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks’ drumline and entertainers will be at one park entrance at the July 3 event, along with merch sales. Their star Trae Young won’t be there, but the vibe will be.
Shared experiences generate Atlanta’s economy and our identity, but many of us are still doing mental calculus around our personal safety. As a mom, Proctor knows that she has to teach her 8-year-old daughter to feel OK around a lot of people. Proctor recalls recovering from 9/11, which makes now the next new normal.
And it makes sense when Proctor says family experiences are critical to our collective recovery.
“There’s no way to replicate the experience of people coming together,” she added. “Bringing children, parents and grandparents together — all the generations—is where the secret sauce lies.”
While the entire world is facing a forced renaissance from COVID-19, recovery is embedded in the Atlanta story. The phoenix rising from ashes is on our city seal.
“Atlanta still has an authenticity associated with it that is very different from other cities,” Proctor noted. “No matter where you are, where you come from, you can create opportunity here. It’s based on Atlanta’s legacy of civil rights and all of the strides that have been made over time. You see it now with the entertainment industry, the influx of film production. We’re creating things that the rest of the world pays attention to. And so I think Atlanta is in a very special place right now, and we really want to continue to harness that and look at what it means to be true to Atlanta and not forgetting our roots, including for transplants — myself included.”
Respite for downtown residents but not a solution
Speaking of families, Adam Shumaker has lived downtown for 20 years. He is married with a 1-year-old daughter, and they live in the Healey Building. He lived in the William S. Oliver Building before that. These historic buildings were my civic wallpaper when I worked for two decades at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on nearby Marietta Street.
Now that I’ve become the infrequent visitor to downtown — maybe showing up for fireworks on July 3 — Shumaker reminded me of the importance of constant foot traffic downtown. Without people consistently showing up, the feeling of safety in downtown Atlanta is in a tough spiral.
“The biggest change since the pandemic is the lack of consistently busy streets now that so many office workers work from home,” Shumaker reported. “This means that our streets are lively when Georgia State University is in session but they suddenly become a ghost town when school lets out. That has caused us to lose a lot of retail which makes downtown less lively and less convenient. The lack of people can also cause it to feel less safe.”
He and his family will welcome a big crowd on July 3, as a respite more than a solution.
“Downtown feels much safer and enjoyable on days when there are major events, which is when we see other families with strollers out and about,” he said. “but the silent gaps in between those events are in need of filling with more residential development and with a return to the office.”
While the downtown business community has greatly shaped the story of modern Atlanta, Shumaker points to the government’s role at this moment, which none of us should ignore.
Attracting people to return downtown “also requires a greater commitment from the City of Atlanta to ensure safety and cleanliness in the downtown area so that people who visit will choose to return or to stay,” Shumaker said. “More residential buildings are on the way, and that’s a good thing, but we really need to see office workers return in full force to restore the vibrancy.”
Hungry for shared celebration
William R. Langley will conduct the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra in a 35-minute performance on July 3 that leads into the Look Up Atlanta fireworks. Some keywords to what’s on tap: brass, Americana, fanfare, John Williams and star-spangled. And ear worms!
ASYO is 115 teenaged musicians from metro Atlanta, 65 of whom will be performing. They
have pursued their musical dreams through obstacles that previous generations of musicians could not have imagined, like Zoom performances. When masked, Langley had to rely on emoting with his eyes.
The pandemic’s ups and downs have been “like a cheese grater taking us down to the rind,” Langley said. “We all had something to lose, and that’s been a lot of in-person socialization for these kids.”
In that vacuum, the will to make music had to survive and for these young people it did. They not only will be live but also televised on PeachtreeTV starting at 5 pm. So there’s celebration not just in the type of music planned for July 3 but in the opportunity itself.
“This performance in the park is a breath of fresh air after what felt like an eternity without live performance for an audience of this size,” Langley said. “These really serious and talented young musicians are especially hungry for the camaraderie and community, and being part of something larger than one’s self.”
Ready or not, decisions loom
The organizers of Look Up Atlanta would love to attract local families, so I caught up with Sarah Gallant, a mother of three (ages 12, 9 and 7) from northeast Atlanta. She grew up in Birmingham, and visiting Atlanta each summer for a few days produced lasting memories for her.
Today, time and the pandemic have shaped her own family’s tradition of visiting downtown.
Pre-pandemic, she bought memberships to Zoo Atlanta and other kid-friendly destinations near or in downtown. As her kids entered school, they didn’t have time to use their memberships fully, so she unsubscribed. During the pandemic, she naturally became very careful about any outings, and when the vaccines rolled out, became more adventurous.
Last summer, she discovered a fun way to kindle her kids’ Atlanta nostalgia that she plans to do again this year. Gallant purchased CityPasses and spent a week using it to visit downtown attractions. They masked and she felt safe enough, and plan to do it again this year.
When I asked her if she had experienced a moment when life felt back to normal, she made a great point. Because the public health response was not uniform, people picked their own moments to resume activities.
“It kind of felt like things were over, whether we were ready for them to be over,” she said.
In an era of choose your own risk, in a pandemic that did not start at a given moment, maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a bookend moment.
These conversations, in general, hinted at a future when we will look back on this time not necessarily for a moment when things changed, but in the context of family and other relationships. I am beginning to expect that we will think back on how we made decisions that reflected our values for community and wellbeing. Is your curiosity also piqued about what we are teaching those who follow us about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the wake of a pandemic? Something to think about this July 4.
Michelle Hiskey is a veteran Atlanta journalist and freelance writer. She spent 22 years as a staff writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Georgia World Congress Center Authority commissioned this piece. Michelle Hiskey also is a former columnist for SaportaReport. Click here to read her past pieces.