By Maria Saporta
Three words dominated Thursday’s annual meeting of the Metro Atlanta Chamber – inclusive, innovation and transit.
Those words were repeated by outgoing Chairman Larry Gellerstedt III, CEO of Cousins Properties; incoming Chairman Jenner Woods, corporate executive vice president of SunTrust Bank; and MAC President Hala Moddelmog.
“Our legislative priorities first and foremost is to have a working environment in Georgia that’s welcoming of everybody and not discriminatory of anyone,” Gellerstedt said in his opening remarks to reporters before the meeting, which was held at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
“Obviously we want to really build on what we did last year with transportation,” Gellerstedt continued. “Transit will be our focus in 2016.”
During the 2015 legislative session, the Chamber worked with state leaders to pass nearly $1 billion of new transportation revenues, but nearly all of that money is restricted to being spent on roads and bridges.
Most transit funding proposals currently being considered are coming from MARTA and the two counties that have been supporting the agency for more than 40 years – Fulton and DeKalb. Historically, the state of Georgia has provided few funds for MARTA or transit in metro Atlanta.
When asked if the Chamber would be asking state leaders to invest in transit, Gellerstedt said: “We certainly think that long term it’s in the state’s interest because of competitiveness and jobs. Our role is going to be advocating for transit wherever and provide a context for how it can be done.”
Gellerstedt also said the business organization’s regional polling of voters has shown strong support for transit.
“If you look at it from a voter standpoint, a key component to passing anything is going to be transit,” Gellerstedt said. “A half-penny for roads doesn’t do well.”
Chamber officials were equally forceful in their views about possible religious freedom legislation, which the gay community has argued could discriminate against particular segments of society.
“To attract people to this city, we have to have a completely inclusive workplace,” Wood said. “We won’t tolerate any discrimination.”
“We are not for anything that has potential for discrimination,” he said. “With religious freedom, I’m not sure what problem this bill is trying to solve.”
Moddelmog also described Atlanta as a city with “a special brand of hustle and hospitality.” She said the Chamber is focused on cultivating the next generation of leaders, welcoming millennials and encouraging innovation. in every zip code in the Atlanta region.
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young also mentioned how the Atlanta business community – driven by the Coca-Cola Co. – had been a leader in giving the city a global platform that welcomed economic growth.
“People don’t fight when they drink Coke together,” Young said. “Since we got air-conditioning and integration, the towns in Georgia and the Southeast are perhaps the best place to raise your family.”
Wood said that when Chamber leaders met Monday with a prospect looking to locate its corporate headquarters in the metro area, they shared the message that the business community will fight any kind of discrimination against race, sex, color, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation.
“We all told them that Atlanta is a welcoming and inclusive community, and it’s always been a city too busy to hate,” Wood said.