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Metro Atlanta’s economic future linked to federal urban affairs policy

By Maria Saporta

Just one month after he was inaugurated, President Barack Obama established the White House Office of Urban Affairs with much fanfare.

The executive order stated:

“About 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and the economic health and social vitality of our urban communities are critically important to the prosperity and quality of life for Americans. Vibrant cities spawn innovation, economic growth, and cultural enrichment through the businesses, universities, and civic, cultural, religious, and nonprofit institutions they attract. Forward-looking policies that encourage wise investment and development in our urban areas will create employment and housing opportunities and make our country more competitive, prosperous, and strong.”

Now, after three years after the Office of Urban Affairs was established “to provide leadership for and coordinate the development of the policy agenda for urban America across executive departments and agencies…,” the Urban Affairs office has been nearly invisible.

In fact, two Atlantans who had been selected to work with the Obama administration to establish its urban policy agenda did attend a round-table discussion on urban issues back in July 2009.

One of those team members — Burrell Ellis, CEO of DeKalb County — said he is not aware of what has become of the administration’s urban policy agenda. Ellis, however, has continued to be involved with several other Obama initiatives.

The other team member — Catherine Ross, director of the Center for Quality Growth at Georgia Tech — did not return an email asking if she has continued to be involved in helping establish the administration’s urban policy.

But from news reports, it does not sound as though the Office of Urban Affairs has lived up to its potential. The high-profile leader — Adolfo Carrión — initially tapped to be director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, was in that post for a little over a year. In May, 2010, Carrión was named regional director of New York and New Jersey for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

He was succeeded by his No. 2 at the Office — Derek Douglas, who had been director of former New York Gov. David Paterson’s office in Washington, D.C. Today, the Office lists only two staff members — Douglas and Lauren Dunn, who had worked in the Domestic Policy Council.

Then just last month, President Obama announced the creation of the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities (CS2). It is a new federal-local pilot aimed at removing silos between federal departments and agencies to help local leaders create jobs, improve business conditions and address local and regional challenges.

Six pilot cities have been implementing the collaborative effort for the past six months —Chester, Pa.; Cleveland and Youngstown (Northeast Ohio Initiative); Detroit; Fresno; Memphis; and New Orleans.

The effort parallels initiatives that the Obama administration has established to create partnerships between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Education in the creation of Hope communities and Promise neighborhoods.

By comparison, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, was overhead earlier this month saying at a private fundraiser that he might eliminate the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — an agency that his own father had led.

The nation’s economic vitality will only occur if the nation’s cities and metro areas are able to flourish. Economic growth has been stimulated when there have been federal policies that encourage greater economic vitality in cities and metropolitan regions.

“I don’t think there has been a better friend to cities in the last 30 years than the Obama administration,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, during the LINK trip to Washington, D.C. last week.

Asked about what happened to the White House Office of Urban Affairs, Reed said the urban policy “is spread across the administration’s platforms.”

Reed said the City of Atlanta has received more than $150 million in direct federal appropriations in the past 29 months.

“The real story is that this is actually happening,” Reed said about the Obama administration’s urban policy. “I think that would have happened faster if it were not for the economy.”

If Obama is re-elected in November, Reed said: “they are going to do even more.”

Reed speaks with an inside perspective. Before joining the LINK trip last Wednesday, Reed attended a transportation and infrastructure forum with Ray LaHood, Obama’s secretary of transportation.

“During the second term, you are going to have some form of an infrastructure bank,” Reed said. “I believe that you are going to have support for an infrastructure bank from both parties.”

Investing in the nation’s infrastructure — roads, bridges, trains, transit, water and sewer systems — would be especially important for urban areas — especially older cities that haven’t been able to maintain their systems and for faster-growing urban areas that need modern systems to help them accommodate their growth.

“More than 80 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product is city driven,” Reed said. “Cities are going to drive global GDP growth.”

Jim Clifton, chairman of the Gallup organization, was in Atlanta April 16 when he sounded similar themes.

In his book: “The Coming Jobs War,” Clifton answered the question of where will the next economic breakthrough come from.

“My answer would be: from the combination of the forces within big cities, great universities, and power local leaders,” Clifton wrote. “The cornerstone of these three is cities, especially America’s top cities. All cities count and can contribute. But so goes the leadership of the top 100 American cities, so goes the country’s economic future.”

Atlanta will benefit from an urban-friendly agenda aimed at promoting economic growth. The presence of Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Emory University, the Atlanta University Center’s institutions, including Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark-Atlanta, Morehouse School of Medicine, is key.

“Pumping out qualified workers will help keep us competitive,” Reed said. “We can never take our eye off the ball. Atlanta has to be at all times the dominant city in the South.”

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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