Lots of big ideas for Atlanta in 21st century global economy; question now is which path to choose

By David Pendered

Atlanta may as well have been the site of a futurist convention last week. The question now is what local leaders will do with the information.

Kasim Reed, Atlanta mayor

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed portrays Atlanta as a a city ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century global economy.

An expanse of talk included the future of MARTA’s union contract and the fate of other transit providers; questions of regional unity at a time of diminishing federal participation in urban affairs; and the increasing role that some city governments outside Georgia hope to play in helping to revive commercial real estate.

Just about the only topic missing was the old saw about alligators and swamps. One matter still to be resolved is how – and if – the region will frame its response to questions about its future role in the globalizing economy of the 21st century.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was among the few speakers to cite a specific vision for the region’s future, and his idea concerned Atlanta’s airport. Reed revived his prediction that future business travelers won’t want to hang out in Atlanta, or any business destination. They’ll want to fly in, do their business at a facility near the airport, and go home – and Reed said Atlanta’s airport will handle that trend.

Local and national leaders spoke at three events – a meeting of the legislative committee that oversees MARTA; ARC’s 2012 State of the Region Breakfast; and the GDSummit, which brings together a diverse group of commercial real estate professionals.

MARTA GM/CEO Beverly Scott addressed the fiscal future of a transit system that’s viewed as essential to the region’s competitiveness because it transports workers to jobs. Scott told lawmakers that legacy pension benefits have to be on the table when the transit system sits down next year to negotiate a contract renewal with representatives of Amalgamated Transit Union No. 732.

Beverly Scott

Beverly Scott, MARTA’s CEO, speaks to state lawmakers about pension reform. Credit: David Pendered

Scott’s remarks are stunning in the sense that MARTA often is criticized for over-compensating its employees.

Essentially, the transit CEO was saying that benefits are the next area to be addressed by a system that has worked for several years on the salary side of employee costs – freezing pay for five years; instituting two-week furloughs for non-union workers in 2010 and 2011; and cutting 700 positions – including 400 layoffs – from a staff that once numbered 5,200.

Click here to read more about Scott’s comments in a previous story in SaportaReport.com.

ARC Chairman Tad Leithead used his breakfast speech to touch on the theme of Abraham Lincoln facing the demise of the Union. Leithead indicated a similar challenge faces metro Atlanta, and he urged the 1,000 attendees to rally behind a common vision for the future, once one is devised.

Leithead said outlined the duties of ARC and added:

  • “It is also our job [at ARC] to convene a regional dialogue and be the voice of the region. We intend to let go of 55 years of theory we’ve held as a bureaucracy [and promote] new opportunities for working together.
  • “We at ARC will do our job. We will convene the dialogue. Once we have agreed on a regional vision, we will lead when leadership is called for and will follow when our partners are GRTA, the governor [and others]. We will be part of the solution. We will disenthrall ourselves and never anymore be part of the problem.”
Tad Leithead

ARC Chairman Tad Leithead describes metro Atlanta as facing a Lincolnesque moment in its self perception as a region. Credit: Donita Pendered

Metro Atlanta will need that sort of vision if Bruce Katz is right in his predictions of a diminishing role of the federal government in urban affairs. Katz, of the Brookings Institute, was keynote speaker at the ARC breakfast and his remarks followed Leithead’s presentation.

“We have a federal government that is not only broke, but broken,” Katz said. “It is a byzantine enterprise. It has thousands of programs that haven’t been reformed for quite some time. It’s time for metro areas to drive a fundamental reinvention of our system.

“The bottom line next year, who ever is elected, is the U.S. federal government is going to scale back in major ways. This metropolis, with its sisters … needs to understand this is coming and needs to adjust.”

The adjustment could take many forms. Katz gave metro Atlanta good marks on the skills and educational attainment of its workforce; the logistics hub and services represented by Atlanta’s airport; and especially its colleges and universities. That said, Katz advised that the region shouldn’t look to Washington for much help in the future.

“The cavalry is not coming,” Katz said.

The mayors of three mid-sized cities who spoke at the GDSummit made it clear their cities are forging their own path to the future. Each of the mayors – from Atlanta, Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C., and Green Bay, Wis. – spoke about initiatives led by the cities themselves to spark growth and development.

Only Charlotte’s mayor, Anthony Foxx, cited a reliance on federal funds, and that was in his city’s pending award of federal funds to start a 10.6-mile extension of the city’s public transit system. Even that plan may be fast-tracked if city leaders can devise a local funding option, he said.

Bruce Katz

Bruce Katz, of the Brookings Institute, offered this prediction of diminishing federal support for cities: “The cavalry is not coming.” Credit: Donita Pendered

“Since the middle of the last decade, transit has been a major driver of commercial growth,” Foxx said. The next phase, “will cost us $2 billion, in today’s dollars. We’re trying to accelerate that by putting local dollars into play. We think transit is a key driver of growth.”

Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins said his city intends to become an aviation cluster similar to Wichita, which is an historic hotbed of start-up businesses, including a slew of aircraft corporations. The city also is fostering an $80 research facility that combines the lab-to-marketplace strengths of North Carolina A&T University and University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Perkins addressed one of Katz’s comments with his observation that mayors can be influential.

“Mayors can get things done,” he said.  “We are in position to interact with citizens and, through sheer will, can get things done.”

Green Bay Mayor James Schmitt ran down a list of projects the city has had a hand in developing and said each is intended to attract private development around it. The projects include a veterans hospital, a corporate headquarters for a cheese manufacturer, and a park with a roller coaster that was intended to appeal to children.

Like Perkins, Schmitt described the role of an activist mayor:

“The first stop should be the mayor’s office. We may not have a lot of money, but we have a lot of connections. We’ll get the things done that it takes to make it happen.”

Atlanta’s Mayor Reed portrayed Atlanta as a city whose governmental leadership is properly managing the city’s airport, and has tackled the tough problem of pension reform. Those two feats are among the many attributes that make the city a good investment for real estate developers, Reed said.

“We don’t play at being real estate developers; we create an environment that is hospitable,” Reed said. “What we understand in Atlanta is that capital and investment goes where it is needed, but stays where it is well cared for.”

GDSummit Mayors

Speakers at the GDSummit included (L-R) Keith Brown, GDSummit chair; Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx; Atlanta City Councilman Ceasar Mitchell, panel moderator; Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed; Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins; Michael Tabb, with the GDSummit; Green Bay Mayor James Schmitt; and former Miami mayor Manuel A. Diaz. Credit: Charles Forde / Forde Fotog

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

15 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    To be effective, municipal government leaders must learn how to play nicely with their peers in the regional sandbox, and get the regional voter’s approval. This was not accomplished with TSPLOST.
    The days of a municipality going its way alone, bolstered by massive Federal funding, are over. We must pay for what we build.Report

    Reply
  2. Gerald says:

    Burroughston Broch:

    But in order for municipal government leaders to play nicely with their peers in the region, the regional leaders have to cooperate. Look, as badly as you may wish to pretend otherwise, T-SPLOST wasn’t a creation of the city of Atlanta. It was created by a Republican governor and a Republican legislature. And the list was put together with lots of input from suburban leaders (and was opposed by the NAACP, the Sierra Club and lots of other urban advocates because of it). And the regional leaders sent a loud and clear message: we don’t want to work with Atlanta because we don’t like Atlanta’s constituency or the leaders that they elect to represent it. Atlanta’s constituency is not going to change, and neither is it going to stop electing leaders to represent its interests. That means that the relationship between Atlanta and the region – who has a different constituency that elects different leaders – are not going to change. For instance, Atlanta is not going to tax itself in order to pay for highways that will mostly be used by suburban drivers. Such a plan would not reduce congestion for Atlanta drivers, and it won’t drive economic development for the city. It will only help – and provide population and job growth – for the suburbs.

    So Atlanta has no choice but to pursue projects alone and pay for it by themselves. Hopefully, the state government – which basically reflects the will of the suburbs – won’t stand in Atlanta’s way.Report

    Reply
  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    Gerald
    I wrote nothing about the City of Atlanta, and nothing about TSPLOST except to state that it was not an example of how things should be done going forward.
    Then, you get all defensive and go out into left field. Why?
    If the City of Atlanta wishes to go their own way and pay for EVERYTHING themselves, then I will be happy for them to do so. This will be a sea change from the past, because the City has long wanted Federal funds for every project.
    By the way, City projects do not include MARTA.Report

    Reply
  4. King_Artair says:

    Trashing the current defined benefit plan and replacing it with a 401K plan will ultimately make transit jobs less desirable. Another blogger, commenting on an AJC article pointed to a “BRAIN DRAIN.” To anyone paying attention someone has already pulled the plug.Report

    Reply

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