By Maria Saporta
The board of the Westside Future Fund, a privately-funded entity aimed at improving the neighborhoods west of the new Mercedes-Benz stadium, has named John Ahmann its new executive director.
Ahmann is the executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, the entity that actually developed the concept for the Westside Future Fund in 2013.
For the past 12 years, Ahmann has been coordinating the efforts of ACP, a group of business and civic leaders who have advised both Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and former Mayor Shirley Franklin.
“John has a deep connection to Atlanta and a long track record of success,” said Richard Dugas, chairman of the Westside Future Fund and CEO of Pulte Homes. “I’m very excited. John badly wanted this, and he showed us he was the best person for the job.”
Ahmann succeeds Quince Brinkley, who served in the role for only seven months before stepping down in early January.
“Quince wasn’t a good match,” Dugas said. “Candidly John has accomplished more in the past four to five weeks on an interim basis than we have in the past several months.”
Ahmann will officially begin his new role after the next ACP board meeting on March 18, but he also has been working to make sure the Westside Future Fund did not lose momentum during the leadership transition. (Meanwhile, ACP will be searching for a new executive director).
“About half of the current residents (on the Westside) are living in poverty,” Ahmann said. “We want to help the current and future residents have better lives through educational attainment, a higher per capita income and reduce crime.”
The goal is to have recovery for the existing residents while repopulating the area, which has some of the most economically challenged neighborhoods in the city.
Ahmann said that as an Atlanta native, he wanted to see tangible success in a part of the city that needs it most.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived there on Sunset,” Ahmann said. “Success is going to be to see something worthy of his own vision. To me, me that is very personal.”
Ahmann, however, is not expecting it to be an easy lift.
“Yes, it’s very daunting,” Ahmann said. But he added that the area now has the attention of the city’s top business, civic and political leaders. Now the challenge will be to get everyone working toward common goals through public and private partnerships.
Dugas said that when the board was looking for a new executive director, it was looking for someone who could deliver three goals: ability to engage the community; ability to manage complex projects; and the ability to help with fundraising.
“In all three of those areas, John has a proven track record,” said Dugas, who described Ahmann as someone who willing to work behind the scenes rather than trying to get the credit.
Ahmann has worked for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Georgia Department of Economic Development and has had his own public affairs consulting firm. He worked on helping secure the collection of King’s personal papers, the Grady Hospital effort as well as working with the Atlanta Public Schools and Decatur Public Schools.
The Fund now will be working on parallel tracks – developing a long-term vision for the area and working to implement short-term successes.
“Our investors have made it clear that 2016 is going to be a year for action,” Dugas said. “We have to be long-term and strategic in our thinking, but we also have got to get things done.”
Already the Fund is working with the City of Atlanta on a “land-use action plan,” and it has contracted with Dhiru Thadani to help put together that plan. The Fund also is working with the Atlanta Police Foundation to house public safety officials in the community. Five houses where the city’s public safety employees will live already is planned for Joseph Lowery Boulevard.
When asked about funding, Dugas said that about $3.5 million has been raised towards a goal of $4.5 million, which would pay for the Fund’s administrative expenses between 2016 and 2018.
Dugas added that they’ve been laying the groundwork to get grants from larger foundations and investments from the corporate sector to help establish an “Equity Acquisition Fund.” The hope is to raise about $10 million to $20 million for that fund, and Jeff Sprecher, the CEO of InterContinential Exchange, has already pledged $5 million to that effort.
The Westside communities are primarily African-American. When asked whether the fact that Ahmann is white was an issue, Dugas said that had been the “elephant in the room” and was honestly discussed by the search committee.
In the end, Dugas said they believed in Ahmann’s viewpoint that “if you have a pure motive and sincerity with your actions, you can cut through that stuff.”
Ahmann said he subscribes to “the Atlanta Way” of bringing the different sectors of the city together to solve problems. Not only does he want to honor that tradition, but he said one important part of the job will be to honor the history of the community and its buildings.
Dugas summed up Ahmann joining the Westside Future Fund as saying: “John is running towards the fire. A year or two from now, it’s going to be about the progress that we’ve made.”