By Urban Land Institute

We spoke with Ashley about her switch from aspiring restaurateur to real estate sales, what’s cooking at Invest Atlanta and her plans for leading ULI Atlanta’s Center for Leadership 2021 Class amid the pandemic.

At age 25, Ashley Jones was working at The Coca-Cola Company as a territory sales manager when she came up with a business plan to open her own restaurant. Besides fresh produce and staffing costs, she realized real estate would be her most expensive cost — but she came up with a “crazy idea” to make it work. 

“I figured that if I could develop my own building, whether it was a strip center or a mixed-use property, I would have another source of income even if the restaurant failed,” she said. So, Jones enrolled in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University to study real estate and urban land development. “Little did I know how complex real estate was. I started to understand, ‘Oh, this is real estate development.’ It really made sense.” 

From there, it didn’t take her long to discover her true calling.

“I remember when the director of the program at VCU asked me if I had ever considered real estate sales, considering my background in B2B sales,” she said. Now, she’s never looked back.

Recipe for Success

In 2009, Jones hit the ground running as a Commercial Sales and Leasing Agent with the Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer office in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. “I was asked to come on board as an office broker,” Jones said. “That is where they had an opening, but in a town like Richmond, you learn to do everything.”

About five years later, she heard C&W was planning to expand its Atlanta office. “I literally ran to my broker and said, ‘I want to go! I want to make the jump’,” she said.

He introduced her to John O’Neill, who serves as C&W’s President of the Central Region. “After a series of conversations, John welcomed me with open arms,” Jones said. Between 2013 to 2016, she worked on Tenant Advisory Services, providing strategic guidance and transaction management for corporate clients, including big hospitals and medical systems, on a regional and national basis.

“Through this process, I started working with more nonprofits and community-based organizations,” Jones said. “I started to see recurring patterns in regards to lack of capital, or some landlords not wanting these types of tenants in their space — the list went on and on.”

She thought back to the inspiring lessons of development she had learned in grad school, and could see her heart was not 100% into full-time brokerage.

“While I loved working at Cushman, I also really started to develop a strong connection to seeing communities improve — not improving like we often think of in terms of gentrification, but basic stuff like making sure residents have access to quality produce or a YMCA Head Start program,” Jones said.

One day, the pieces all came together when she reached out to Alan Ferguson, Senior Vice President of Community Development at Invest Atlanta, the city’s official economic development authority. At the time, Jones was working on a non-profit deal in which Ferguson served on the board, and they had bonded over a mutual passion for real estate.  

Invest Atlanta was looking for a new person to primarily handle acquisitions, and although Ferguson was looking for someone at the junior level, Jones was again ready to jump.

“He is the best boss I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “He thinks about real estate and most importantly community development differently.” Since joining as a Real Estate Manager in 2016, Jones was promoted last year to her current role as the Assistant Director of Commercial Development. In addition to acquisitions and dispositions, her focus is on working with commercial developers to find incentive support through a myriad of ways — part of Invest Atlanta’s larger mission to advance the city’s global competitiveness by growing a strong economy, building vibrant communities and increasing economic prosperity for all Atlantans. 

“My work is almost like solving a puzzle or a game,” Jones said. “I genuinely like it.”

Big Appetite for Small Business

The puzzles vary in size, scope and difficulty. Many take years to go from asking, “What if?” to completion, such as the Memorial Drive Greenway which could be a five- to 10-year project. Some are really massive, cool ones like West End Mall, a 12.5-acre site in a reemerging commercial district located one mile southwest of Downtown Atlanta, surrounded by four HBCUs and connected to the Atlanta BeltLine.

One of Jones’ proudest wins is The MLK iVillage, the city’s first shipping container village offering affordable, attractive and transit-oriented retail at the HE Holmes Marta Station. 

“That was a project that we were told ‘no’ a million times, yet our team was able to get it done,” she said. “That is a cool project because it’s helping small businesses.”

Another recent project gaining traction — and local news coverage — is the Sweet Auburn Technical Assistance and Predevelopment Fund, which Invest Atlanta approved in January 2019 to provide resources to real estate development and economic vibrancy in the historic Sweet Auburn District. Earlier this month, ABC Chicken and Waffles opened in the Freedom Corner building adjacent to the Madam C.J. Walker Museum on Auburn Avenue, thanks in part to financial support from Invest Atlanta.

“We’re literally walking arm in arm with Central Atlanta Progress and 1045 Advisors to mobilize the property owners — small developers as well as the community and faith-based organizations — to help them reconceptualize what the rebirth of Sweet Auburn will look like,” Jones said. “That is really exciting to me. There’s something about seeing the small projects touching small businesses that really pulls my heartstrings.” 

Especially in an unpredictable year like this one, Jones is staying focused by celebrating each small victory, whether it’s helping a developer achieve a full capital stack for a project or helping a project lead land a new tenant.

“To see these community developers really ingrain and educate themselves and come up with really dynamic plans and visions on these assets is huge,” she said. “And to be able to provide some sort of capital to ignite those visions — that’s something where you sit back and you say, ‘Okay, I may not get the instant gratification of a ribbon-cutting today, but when I can drive down the street and see their dreams come to fruition, that is really cool.’”

Still, the biggest obstacle remains the lack of capital for these types of development. “Anybody who touches real estate understands the necessity for affordable housing, but oftentimes with affordable housing and gentrification, there is a disconnect with funding for even small commercial projects that house the local salon or daycare,” Jones said. “Those small businesses often get priced out, and there’s a lack of capital from the equity- and philanthropic- sides that is needed to sustain these projects.”

The Special Ingredient

As a Black woman, another challenge Jones isn’t naive to is the lack of diversity in the CRE industry. “There is a lot of work to be done on this issue; ranging from helping diverse developers get capital for a project to assisting diverse candidates to get access and gain advancement within the larger firms. However, collectively we are coming together to find a solution,” she said. 

She credits Urban Land Institute (ULI) for doing its part to bridge the gap. “I’ve always been a member since the mentor-mentee program back in Richmond,” she said. Her then-mentor was T.K. Somanath, formerly of Better Housing Coalition, the region’s largest nonprofit community development corporation, and he piqued her interest in getting more involved at the community level.

“ULI hits the nail on the head of what I feel like my purpose is,” she said. 

When she moved from Virginia to Atlanta, she brought her passion for ULI with her. Over time, she continued to attend events and make more connections. When she decided she wanted to apply for ULI Atlanta’s Center for Leadership, she relied on those relationships.

“My network is really what got me in the door,” she said. “The first time I applied, I didn’t get in. That’s how competitive the program is. So, just like most folks who go through the process, I really had to reflect back on what I was looking to get out of the program and how I could improve myself. Luckily, it paid off for me.”

A graduate of the 2018 Class, Jones said the network is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of being part of CFL. 

“When you’re in a room full of like-minded individuals who want and go after the same things as your yourself, you cannot do nothing but learn,” she said. “I really applaud ULI for that — it’s always challenging you to be better. Real estate can seem like a big, larger-than-life industry, but ULI makes it tangible. Everyone’s voice is accepted and the programming definitely makes you sharper. You don’t get that anywhere else in the commercial real estate industry — you don’t get hardcore comps at a cocktail function.”

In fact, Jones now sits on the board for Focused Community Strategies (FCS), a 501c(3) organization that empowers under-resourced Atlanta neighborhoods to thrive, as a direct result of her mini Technical Assistance Panel (mTAP) through CFL. “I love the work of my friends at FCS,” she said. “They are the prototype of not only faith-based development, but community development overall in my opinion. They are not afraid to have hard conversations, and they approach their neighborhood and its residents with so much dignity. It’s a shared mutual respect between them, that many organizations could learn from.”

“For anybody who is considering the program, I can’t speak enough about what CFL does for broadening your relationships, especially when working in the collective energy of groups like mTAPs,” Jones said. Within her mTAP team alone, Jones worked alongside a land use attorney (Julie Sellers), an architect (Jason Snyder), a small developer (Mike Green) and a broker (Inga Harmon). “The mTAPs are almost like fortune-telling in a way because so many of the projects CFL has focused on in the past can come to fruition.”

Last year, Jones also served as CFL’s Co-Chair and shadowed then-Chair, Regent Partners’ Director of Development Services, Keith Mack. Typically a nine-month program, COVID-19 concerns caused the 2020 class to adapt its timeline and programming to a virtual format, while still delivering an abundance of camaraderie, insight and challenge.

“Being Co-chair was so fun,” Jones said. “I can never replace Keith Mack — he’s a great guy and has a really phenomenal outlook on life. Like any other organization that had to pivot during COVID, we had our challenges but again, it made us sharpen ourselves for the upcoming year.”

Now stepping into the Chair role for the 2021 class, Jones plans to dive even deeper into the curriculum’s topics. “I’ve gotten feedback over the years that CFL only scratched the surface on some conversations,” she said. “That’s something that we’re incorporating into this year’s class, whether it’s an outside facilitator to guide us through a leadership assessment or other ways to further explore everything from transportation to affordable housing to economic development incentives. Because we’re working with leaders in the industry, everybody has a different viewpoint and a thought process and we welcome those passionate conversations.”

 With support from her Co-Chair Sheba Ross, Vice President of design firm HKS, Jones is also working to diversify panels, speakers and content to set this year apart — especially as the virtual format allows for the opportunity to bring in leaders on the national level. “We love the knowledge and experience our local leaders share with the class, but we are also asking ourselves: are there other national thought-leaders we can call upon to assist us in telling a holistic story about real estate development and land use to help solve our local issues?”

Staying Hungry for More

While she no longer plans to open a restaurant anytime soon, Jones says she still enjoys time in the kitchen as well as dining out at some of the city’s best restaurants.

“I would never call myself a formal chef, but cooking is one of my pastimes I’ve liked to do since I was a kid,” she said. “My mom reminds me that even when I was young, I would always point out different restaurant concepts as we would drive around. That was my thing.”

While she has been spending more time at home this year, she has also elevated to VIP status with UberEats and GrubHub supporting local favorites like Atlanta Fish Market and Chops.

When she does venture out these days, you may find her on the rooftop patio like American Cuts enjoying the view over Peachtree Road and or at Estrella keeping an eye on new development along the Atlanta BeltLine. 

After all, just like her life-long appreciation for good food, her hunger for supporting local businesses and community development is insatiable.

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