By Maria Saporta
The Atlanta BeltLine Inc. has a new president and CEO — Paul Morris from North Carolina.
The ABI board met Wednesday morning when it voted to approve Morris, the former deputy secretary of transit for the N.C. Department of Transportation, as its next executive. Morris is expected to begin his new role within the next several weeks.
ABI Chairman John Somerhalder, CEO of AGL Resources Inc., said that Morris’ wealth and breadth of experience made him the top choice among the five finalists for the position.
“We ended up with the candidate that we believe is absolutely the best candidate for this role,” Somerhalder said.
In addition to serving as deputy secretary of transit for N.C. DOT, Morris also has worked for 30 years in consulting and line management roles focusing on transportation, urban regeneration and development, natural resource management, public parks and the development of corporate and institutional facilities throughout the United States and Canada.
It also didn’t hurt that Morris likely will have some well-placed friends in Washington, D.C. — namely President Barack Obama’s nominee to be U.S. Secretary of Transportation — Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.
“Paul did work with Mayor Foxx, and my understanding is that they had a good relationship and had successes together,” Somerhalder said after the board vote. “That’s one of many experiences that Paul has that brings value to the Atlanta BeltLine.”
Although Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did not attend the board meeting (he does serve on the board), Somerhalder said the mayor had met with Morris a couple of times and that he “thought highly of Paul.”
Somerhalder also was asked about Lisa Gordon, one of the five finalists who has been serving as the interim CEO since last August and has been ABI’s chief operating officer for the past three years.
“We believe that Lisa is very valuable to this organization,” Somerhalder said. Asked if the board wanted her to stay, he quickly said: “Absolutely. She is a very strong contributor, and we want to have a very strong organization moving forward.”
The Atlanta BeltLine project — the redevelopment of a 22-mile corridor around the central city — is a multi-faceted endeavor that includes multi-purpose trails, parks, development of commercial, residential, retail and affordable housing as well as plans for streetcars or transit.
ABI was established by the economic development arm of the city — Invest Atlanta — in 2006 to manage the Atlanta BeltLine project. It is the public agency in charge of the project while there also is a private, fund-raising group called: Atlanta BeltLine Partnership.
“Mr. Morris, with his accomplished background, expertise and managerial experience, is the right person at the right time to lead the Atlanta BeltLine,” said Brian McGowan, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta, in a release. “We look forward to working closely with him as the BeltLine continues to develop into a national model of urban public green space.”
In a statement released by the city, Mayor Reed, who chairs Invest Atlanta’s board, said: “With almost 30 years of transportation and urban development experience, Paul Morris brings an impressive depth of management experience to the Atlanta BeltLine. I am confident that under the leadership of Mr. Morris, the Atlanta BeltLine will continue to drive projects that will make Atlanta a national model for urban revitalization.”
Ernestine Garey, Invest Atlanta’s executive vice president and COO, said Morris “will help make an already-great redevelopment project even better.”
As redevelopment agent for the city, Invest Atlanta oversees the BeltLine tax allocation district (TAD) program and funding.
Somerhalder said that Morris’ background in all those aspects fit well with the needs of the Atlanta BeltLine. Morris , who was familiar with the BeltLine even before the position had become open, did spend time touring the corridor.
“When we asked him to articulate his vision, it was very consistent with the board’s vision,” Somerhalder said.
Morris also has received numerous awards and recognition from groups including the State of North Carolina, the Waterfront Center, 1000 Friends of Oregon, National League of Cities, U.S. Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Morris received his undergraduate degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon.
ABI is working on a three-year agreement with Morris that will establish the terms of employment, Somerhalder said, adding that the agreement will have some flexibility if anything should change in those three years. There also will be opportunities to extend that contract. Korn/Ferry International assisted ABI with the national search.
“The organization today is remarkably strong,” Somerhalder said. “What we believe the next stage will be, in addition to all the talent we now have, is that we will add the talent that will take us to another level — that will accelerate the successes we’ve already had.”