Naming Doug Hooker as the new ARC director shows real progress in the Atlanta region

The selection of Doug Hooker as the next executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission sends positive signals for the metro area.

Hooker is someone who has worked in government — both for the State of Georgia as the head of the State Road and Tollway Authority and the City of Atlanta as its commissioner of public works.

Hooker also has worked in the private sector, most recently as vice president and Southern states director of the comprehensive engineering and planning firm — Atkins Global — formerly known as PBS&J.

And Hooker has worked tirelessly on the third leg of the stool — the civic sector. He has chaired the board of the Civic League of Regional Atlanta; and he has been involved with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Atlanta Opera, the Rotary Club of Atlanta and numerous other entities.

Given the breadth of his experience in the region, Hooker clearly is one of the best prepared leaders for his new role as ARC’s executive director. He was the unanimous choice of the ARC search committee, and the full board is expected to vote on his appointment at a board meeting on Monday, Oct. 31.

Doug Hooker

Hooker also is the first African-American to head the ARC in its history — a sign that the region has become increasingly color-blind. And that is a welcome sign for a region where it’s all to easy to focus on our racial, income and geographic divides.

One person who was particularly pleased with the selection of Hooker was Harry West, who worked at the ARC for 27 years (1972 to 1999) — 26 of those years as director.

“Doug is the right person for the organization at this point in time,” West said. “It’s an excellent choice.”

West said the region is at a critical place, and the commission is in need of strategic and collaborative leadership.

“Doug has a great ability to calmly listen to folks and bring divergent folks together,” West said. “And now is a good time to do that.”

Hooker succeeds Chick Krautler, who retired earlier this year after heading the commission for a decade. Krautler had been a planning professional who moved to Atlanta from North Carolina in 2000.

(Emerson Bryan, who has been with the ARC for the better part of four decades, has been serving as the interim director. Interestingly enough, Bryan also is an African-American).

This time around, West said he is pleased the organization decided to hire someone from the Atlanta region instead of going out of state. The search committee did conduct a national search, and several of its final slate of candidates were from out of state.

“I think it definitely was a smart move to hire someone local at this time,” West said. “I don’t think anyone coming in from the outside would have had the luxury to come up to speed. There are too many things that need to get done right now.”

West said Hooker faces both internal and external challenges in his new role.

Internally, West said the organization is “getting long in the tooth” with most of its senior staff now eligible to retire. The ARC also has a couple of key vacancies that have been left unfilled until a new director had been selected.

West said Hooker might want to take advantage of the situation by restructuring and reorganizing the commission’s staff.

“He will be faced with having to rebuild the staff at some point,” West said.

Externally, Hooker will join the ARC just after the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable has adopted a list of projects to present to voters next year.

Voters will be asked to approve a 10-year, penny sales tax that is expected to generate more than $7.2 billion to be invested in the 10-county region. The Roundtable approved $6.14 billion worth of projects; and the remaining dollars would be portioned out to city and county governments.

“It’s no secret to anyone that in the past decade we have not made the kind of investment in infrastructure, be it transportation or water or other things that we need,” West said.

Saying the Transportation Investment Act and the Roundtable’s list of projects is “far from perfect,” West said that it is the package of projects that the region has to work with.

“If we don’t do it, we are back to square one,” West said. “It may not be the best in the world, but it’s the only game in town.”

Several issues remain surrounding the transportation sales tax referendum, including whether the legislature will try to clean up some of the language and stipulations in the bill and whether the date will be changed from July 31, 2012 to the general election in November, 2012.

There also are issues of oversight of the investment and whether the Roundtable and the ARC board will take an active role in making sure promises are kept to voters in the region.

And then there’s the big issue of transit governance. The ARC’s Regional Transit Committee had proposed a balanced (if not bulky) governance structure based on giving fair representation to those entities in the region that were investing the most in their transit infrastructure.

Gov. Nathan Deal has set up his own transit governance task force of mostly state legislators, and the word is that the state would favor modifying the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) to be the new overarching agency and that the state would have a majority of the voting members.

This could be a difficult sell in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb because they have been investing billions of dollars in MARTA for the past 40 years and the state has hardly been a significant financial partner for transit in the region.

West said Hooker would need to take his cues from the ARC board on how to proceed with those kind of delicate political negotiations going forward.

Catherine Ross, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development and the founding executive director of GRTA, said Hooker is well suited for his new role.

“Doug brings a balanced experience to his new appointment as executive director and has a good understanding of the policy, technical and political expectations that accompany his new appointment,” Ross said. “He is also very familiar with the metro area and the southeastern United States.”

Ross said that Hooker is “very thoughtful” and “has good interpersonal skills” that will help him bring the public and private sectors together for the region’s benefit.

She also pointed out that as the first African-American to lead the organization, it was a good step forward.

The ARC board, which has representatives from each of the 10 counties, has been said to favor the more rural, less dense areas of the region.

It is a further testament to Hooker, who has been a regional leader with an Atlanta base, that he has had the ability to reach across to the varied parts of the region to become only the fourth ARC executive director since its founding in 1971. (Prior to ARC, there had been the Metropolitan Planning Commission, which had played a similar role).

“Doug probably knows as many people in the region as anybody you could name,” West said. “He is someone who is local; someone who understands the issues; someone who knows the people; and someone who understands where we are and what is needed.”

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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