By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on May 16, 2014

PHILADELPHIA – A delegation of 111 metro Atlanta leaders, who just returned from a study mission to Philadelphia, learned how Drexel University hopes to bridge its campus with its surrounding community by building over rail yards near the 30th Street Amtrak train station.

It did not take long for the delegation, traveling on the annual Atlanta Regional Commission trip that explores how other regions address the very issues facing Atlanta, for key local leaders to see a direct parallel between what Drexel is planning and “the Gulch” in downtown Atlanta between the Five Points MARTA station and Philips Arena.

To realize the Philly mega-development, Drexel is looking to partner with the railroads, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the University of Pennsylvania, and the city of Pennsylvania to transform what has been a hole in the ground into a thriving new community.

John Fry, president of Drexel University, spoke of creating a transit-oriented “innovation neighborhood” for education, research, technology and commercial entities connected to the city’s major multimodal hub.

View of Philadelphia from Camden, N.J. (Photos by Maria Saporta)
View of Philadelphia from Camden, N.J. (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Dana Lemon, a board member of the Georgia Department of Transportation, spoke of adopting Philadelphia’s development tools and bringing them to Atlanta.

“We’ve got that hole in the ground — the Gulch — we can do something with that space – connecting the educational communities,” Lemon said. “Until we do something with that hole, we will still be a disconnected city.”

Interestingly enough, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has been working behind the scenes to foster the concept of “anchor institutions” becoming more engaged in building bridges in the community.

On Sept. 11, 2013, it held a dinner at its family office, where the presidents of Georgia State University (Mark Becker), Georiga Tech (Bud Peterson), Spelman College (Beverly Tatum), Clark Atlanta (Carlton Brown), Morehouse College (John Wilson) and Morehouse School of Medicine (both John Maupin and Valerie Montgomery-Rice) were joined with executives of other key anchor institutions.

Those included the Atlanta Falcons (Arthur Blank); the Georgia World Congress Center (Frank Poe); Central Atlanta Progress (A.J. Robinson); and Invest Atlanta’s Brian McGowan as well as developer Egbert Perry and Renee Glover, former CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Architect Robert Brown who serves on GDOT board; Penny McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation; and David Allman, developer with Regent Partners who serves on GWCCA board on the Philadelphia side of Delaware River
Architect Robert Brown who serves on GDOT board; Penny McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation; and David Allman, developer with Regent Partners who serves on GWCCA board on the Philadelphia side of Delaware River

The Blank Foundation then brought in top executives from John Hopkins University; the University of Pennsylvania; Widener University; Tulane University; and the SURDNA and Ford foundations to discuss how anchor institutions could help transform communities.

“Because the Falcons are an anchor institution and see themselves as an important piece of the puzzle, that’s going to make a difference on the west side, it’s a natural role for the foundation to be a convener to bring all of the institutions together,” said Penelope McPhee, president of the Blank Foundation.

“We started that process last fall by inviting leaders from other institutions to talk to us,” McPhee said. “We learned that it takes a continuous 30-year commitment, and we learned that it’s an institutional commitment that has to come from the top.”

Asked if Atlanta’s institutions were ready to move forward with expansive community agendas, McPhee said: “I think hearts are in the right place but resources are not yet following.”

In talking to the Atlanta delegation, Fry said getting involved in the surrounding community was a matter of enlightened self-interest.

“These institutions can rise and fall by the success of their communities,” Fry said. If a neighborhood around a university is plagued by crime, it will hurt that institution’s ability to prosper by attracting quality students, faculty and staff, he said.

But community outreach is multi-layered and complex — from getting involved in the public schools to the physical revitalization of an area. Plus, it’s important that it is done in partnership with the community and not imposed upon the neighborhoods.

Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who serves Newell Rubbermaind Inc.’s board and was in town for its annual meeting on May 13, said it was necessary for his university – as the largest employer in Jefferson Parish in New Orleans – after Hurricane Katrina, to get reach out to the community.

The university got involved in four areas: youth development, the cultural renaissance of the city, rebuilding neighborhoods and health care.

“We know it has helped the community, but it has also strengthened us because it’s given us the reputation as a university that’s connected to the city,” said Cowen, who also serves on the board of the Marcus Foundation.

GWCCA Chairman Tim Lowe, GDOT board member Dana Lemon and Roswell Mayor Jere Wood on LINK trip in Philadelphia
GWCCA Chairman Tim Lowe, GDOT board member Dana Lemon and Roswell Mayor Jere Wood on LINK trip in Philadelphia

“Arthur wants to build a new stadium. He’s trying to get the anchor institutions to show what they can do in this area to be helpful,” he said. “Those institutions are really powerful institutions in this city. And the Blank Foundation is a powerful convener. They can perhaps fund some of these initiatives.”

The only university president on this year’s LINK trip was Tim Hynes of Clayton State University, but several other institutional partners were focused on the possible linkages between Georgia State and the Atlanta University campus.

In between those two campuses, there is Underground Atlanta, which is currently for sale; the Gulch — which is slated to become the new multimodal station — a top priority of Lemon and some members of the Georgia DOT board; and the new Atlanta Falcons stadium.

“Many of us in the metro area have anchor institutions,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, during one of the feedback session during this year’s LINK trip. “They are not doing what Drexel is doing. How can we incent those institutions to do what Drexel is doing? What are the incentives that can get them beyond their walls?”

Several people on the LINK trip said that the Atlanta region has all the necessary ingredients to replicate the kind of success that Philadelphia is experiencing in the areas of innovation, higher education and biomedicine — which they repeatedly referred to as “eds and meds.”

Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance, said that although the Atlanta region is a center for innovation, it does not do as good a job marketing itself as well as some other regions.

“What is our tagline?” asked Terry Lawler, executive director of the Regional Business Coalition, during one of the feedback sessions.

“We have got to have that message,” agreed Nick Masino, who leads Partnership Gwinnett. “We need regional marketing. Let’s get 13 to 14 organizations together to come up with that message.”

Georgia DOT’s Lemon, however, brought it back to the core of the city.

“I care about connecting communities,” she said. “But until we do something about that damn hole in the middle of the city, we will be having this same conversation 20 years from now.”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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