By Maria Saporta
The 2016 LINK trip to Dallas – scheduled from May 4 to May 7 – will mark the Atlanta region’s 20th anniversary of the annul visit to peer cities – providing metro leaders an opportunity to reflect on the value of the trips and consider their future.
About 110 metro Atlanta leaders are scheduled to be on the three-day to the Dallas-Fort Worth area – studying transportation, urban planning, downtown renaissance, the arts, education, millennials, suburban development and regional economic development.
But the final session will be a group discussion on LINK’s past and future. LINK stands for Leadership, Involvement, Networking and Knowledge.
Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, compared the LINK trip to how he felt when he turned 40 years old.
“I thought I was young enough to remember my youth but old enough to see my future,” Hooker said. “This 20th anniversary gives us this same nexus about what it means to look back and what it means to move forward.”
For Kerry Armstrong, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and a senior vice president of Pope & Land Enterprises, said it is a pivotal time for the region.
“Looking ahead from this vantage point, it looks like a lot more change than we have seen in the past 20 years,” Armstrong said. “It does set a different tone. A new day is dawning on lots of different levels.”
Both Armstrong and Hooker acknowledged the Atlanta region has fallen short of addressing its many regional challenges collaboratively. It’s more of a mixed bag. The region has worked well trying to sort through its water resources. But it has not yet found a way to work on a balanced approach to solving the region’s transportation needs – especially transit.
As Hooker described the current climate, he said “there’s a lot of sub-regional collaboration” – mentioning the collaborative Aerotropolis initiative when several governments ar
e working together on a common strategy.
“I do think we are on the verge on a lot of new collaboration across the region,” Hooker said.
The purpose of the LINK trips has been to help forge regional relationships while getting ideas from other cities on policies that work and policies that don’t work.
And given the diversity of people who go on LINK trips, there are a myriad of views and interests among the participants. But everyone comes home more enlightened about the issues that confront metro Atlanta in relation to our peer cities. They also return to Atlanta with closer relationships with a number of other leaders in our region.
The last time metro Atlantans took a LINK trip to Dallas, it was in 1999.
It was the only LINK trip that then Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell had attended – lured to Dallas by Atlanta developer John Williams, who was then the chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Campbell rode on Williams’ private plane and stayed for only one day and night, attending a secret dinner with other regional elected officials.
“We have many issues we have to confront, things we can agree on and some we can’t,” Williams said. “Let’s do it in a thoughtful and congenial way, and not let them become wedges between us.”
A highlight of the Dallas trip was when then-Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk admitted to being envious of Atlanta. “What makes Atlanta special is that you have got nine to 10 colleges and universities in one city,” Kirk said. “Everybody in Atlanta has a degree. Never take for granted what an asset it is for you to have those.”
Back in 1999, the 71-member Atlanta delegation realized that “sprawl” was not yet a dirty word in Dallas. “We couldn’t prevent sprawl even if we wanted to,” James Toal, former Fort Worth planning director, told the LINK delegation.
That was music to the ears of Gwinnett developer Wayne Mason, who said Dallas had the “right attitude” because of no environmentalists, no trees, no streams and no mountains. “It’s a developer’s paradise,” Mason said.
Atlantans did meet a one-of-a-kind developer – Don Williams, the former chairman of Trammell Crow. He stepped down from his real estate role so he could work full-time as a champion for South Dallas, the disadvantaged section of the Texas city.
“We are literally a tale of two cities,” Williams told the LINK delegation. “In Dallas today, it is a disgrace that all of our citizens don’t have access to jobs and quality housing. It’s a serious crisis. A significant part of our community is being left out. Fair Park/South Dallas has 60 percent unemployment instead of a metro area unemployment rate of 3 percent. We are going to see a growing gap between the have’s and the have nots.”
The 2016 LINK trip to Dallas-Fort Worth will give Atlanta leaders an opportunity to see how the Texas city has progressed in the past two decades when compared to Atlanta’s progress.
“The Dallas-Fort Worth region is very similar to our region in many ways,” said Stephen Causby, who is organizing the 2016 LINK trip for the Atlanta Regional Commission. “They’re both Sun Belt metro areas, economic competitors and very much a peer regions.”
While metro Atlanta has had virtually no expansion of its rail transit system since 1999, Dallas has been on the move.
“They have the largest light rail system in America,” Causby said. “When the group went in 1999, they had about 20 miles of light rail, and now they have 90 plus. They also have expanded out to suburban areas.”
On the first evening that Atlantans will be Dallas, they will hear from Dallas Mike Rowlings.
Unfortunately, Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, will not be attending this year’s LINK trip. But Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who is expected to run for mayor in 2017, is planning to go to Dallas.
Note to readers: Maria Saporta recently finished helping the Atlanta Regional Commission put together a 20-year history of the LINK trips. As a journalist who has attended all but one of the LINK trips, she was compensated by the ARC for her work on the history.