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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”