Norfolk Southern eyes moving HQ to downtown Atlanta’s Gulch

By Maria Saporta

The Fortune 500 company looking to move its corporate headquarters to the Gulch in downtown Atlanta is Norfolk Southern Corp.

The railroad company ranked as No. 284 on the Fortune 500 list, currently is based in Norfolk, Va. It opened its current 21-story headquarters in Norfolk in 1988. The headquarters relocation could bring as many as 1,400 jobs to Atlanta.

Norfolk Southern has been based in Norfolk since the holding company was formed in 1982 through the merger of Atlanta-based Southern Railway and Norfolk & Western. Norfolk Southern’s predecessor railroads date to the early 19th Century. The lineage of Norfolk Southern dates back 188 years.

Norfolk Southern

A photo of a Norfolk Southern train with the Atlanta skyline in the background. The photo was part of Norfolk Southern’s 2015 calendar

According to Fortune Magazine, Norfolk Southern had $10.55 billion in revenues in 2017. It has been on the Fortune 500 list for 24 years.

Although the railroad is based in Norfolk, it actually has more employees in Georgia than it does in Virginia, according to the company’s website.

The company has 4,710 employees based in Georgia, while Virginia has 4,015 Norfolk Southern employees. Atlanta has been an important operational center for the railroad, which currently is housed in a building on Peachtree Street in Midtown between 14th and 15th streets.

But when Southern Railway was based in Atlanta, its headquarters were within spitting distance of the Gulch – the big hole that exists in the south side of downtown.

The real estate firm CIM has been assembling property in the Gulch. It just so happens that one of the biggest property owners is Norfolk Southern. Atlanta was formed because three major railroad lines converged in a place that was called Terminus – later Marthasville and eventually Atlanta.

The hole known as the Gulch was formed when Atlanta created a series of viaducts to lift the city above the railroad lines.

Norfolk Southern logo

Norfolk Southern logo

At a Rotary Club of Atlanta meeting on Aug. 20, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, divulged that a Fortune 500 company was looking to move its headquarters to the Gulch. But they did not divulge the company’s name – only insisting that it was not Amazon’s second headquarters.

In order to build out the infrastructure of its project, CIM has been asking the City of Atlanta to extend the Westside Tax Allocation District from 2038 to 2048. That will allow the developer to borrow against an anticipated increase in property taxes.

At a Westside TAD work session on Aug. 21, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told council members that the city would be foolish to pass up on the opportunity to attract a major headquarters.

“The elephant in the room is a very big company that is looking at the city potentially as a place to relocate their headquarters.,” she said. “This project is an important project to the city of Atlanta, and to miss the opportunity to make this project a reality would be foolhardy on the part of council and the administration.”

The legislation to extend the Westside TAD now will be going through the Atlanta City Council’s committees before going before the full Council at its next meeting on Sept.17th.

Norfolk Southern

A photo of a Norfolk Southern train that was included in the railroad’s 2016 calendar (Norfolk Southern)

Local and state officials familiar with project (even though they didn’t disclose the name of the prospect) explained that CIM was trying to get approval for its financing plan in an effort to get the project done in time to meet the company’s needs.

According to people familiar with Norfolk Southern, the railroad has flirted with the idea of moving its headquarters to Atlanta – a city that has become a magnet for Fortune 500 companies – largely because of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

A call to Norfolk Southern’s spokeswoman Susan Terpay’s cell phone was not returned Thursday night.

Also, Atlanta business leader Tom Bell has been served on Norfolk Southern’s board since 2010. Bell currently is chairman of Mesa Capital Partners, and he is the former CEO of Cousins Properties Inc.

On Thursday night, Bell responded in a text to say he is traveling in Africa, and had limited cell service. He did not respond to a question about whether Norfolk Southern would be moving its headquarters to Atlanta.

City and state officials who were reached Thursday night said they could not comment on ongoing economic development prospects.

Norfolk Southern Georgia fact sheet

Norfolk Southern Georgia fact sheet (Norfolk Southern)

Norfolk Southern

Norfolk Southern Virginia fact sheet (Norfolk Southern)

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.

8 replies
  1. Greg Hodges says:

    Glad to see this, but not surprising. NS has been increasing its footprint in the Atlanta area for sometime. In the late 1920’s the Southern Railway (which was always based in Washington DC {15th & K St.} …but never in Atlanta) moved over 1000 accounting positions to the then new office building on Spring St. (now Ted Turner Dr) from DC. After the 1982 merger with the N&W, the new Norfolk Southern Corp. continued its Atlanta presence (vacating the old Spring St. facility) and opened offices at 1200 Peachtree St., now called the Goode Building after David Goode, a former CEO. A statue of Samuel Spencer, who became the first president of the Southern Railway in 1894, gazes out toward Peachtree St. from its perch in front of that building. (The statue had stood in front of Terminal Station for 60 yrs., and was then moved to Peachtree Station, then placed in Hardy Ivy Park, and finally relocated to 1200 Peachtree St.)
    Another Fortune 500 company headquarters would be yet another feather in Atlanta’s cap.Report

    Reply
  2. Chris Johnston says:

    The old SR, later NSC office buildings on Spring St. were first warehouses. When NSC was formed in 1982 it inherited two data centers, the NW center at Roanoke and the SR center at Spring St. Contrary to engineeting studies, NSC decided to close the Roanoke center and keep the Spring St. center. Years later the data center was relocated elsewhere in metro Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  3. John Ray says:

    The irony of a major railroad company moving their HQ to a functional railroad junction at a major development with no current plans for using said rail is KILLING me… #TrueToAtlantaReport

    Reply
  4. Greg Hodges says:

    Norfolk Southern freight trains use their trackage in the gulch area daily and have done so for many years. By comparison, the company’s current headquarters building on Commercial Place in the downtown area of Norfolk is over a mile from any of its rail trackage in that city.Report

    Reply
  5. Chris Johnston says:

    Greg, you are correct. Do you remember just prior to the 1996 Olympic Games when ACOG sent NSC a letter ordering them not to operate their trains through the Gulch because they posed a security threat to the Games? NSC replied with a nicely worded letter telling ACOG to pound sand and continued running their trains. The same will continue.Report

    Reply
  6. writes_of_weigh says:

    writes_of_weigh says:
    February 10, 2018 at 5:36 pm
    Maria, As a frequent guest at certain Commerce Club functions, I’m certain that you have “digested” more than once, the lament of rail execs complaining about the “cost of passenger rail and or transit” to their now freight only networks, save the occasional passing Amtrak train. As well, I’m certain that you understand that todays costs for relocating any rail passenger facility, which may have a snowballs chance of being built outside the immediate “gulch” area, where for specific reasons of intermodal connectivity, interchange between carriers, and inter-operability, the site of Atlanta’s prior “temples” of (rail)transit stood, you better than other unknowing and ill-informed denizens of this column, know that the true costs would literally be in the billion$, and if allowed to survive as a proposal, will immediately “sink” any option or ideas of expanding such services, due to NO ENTITY being willing to bear the burden of such astronomical cost(s). So few, today, truly understand the dollar value of what we have, rail infrastructure-wise, and while many have want and true need for further investment in the mode, the multi-billions needed to solve the problem, would certain “tax ” the wealth of a Bezos, or a Musk, or a Gates(who has/may own shares in CN.ca), not to mention a Buffett(who indeed bought a major western rail carrier (BNSF)) and is learning from the bootstraps what the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the Hills knew from their investments of a couple of centuries(nearly) ago. I reiterate for the umpteenth(?) time, the state of Georgia’s W&A rail line(currently under lease to CSX until 2019) which is measured from the zero milepost, to and across the GA/TN state line into downtown Chattanooga, TN, where like in our Gulch area, there is an interstate rail carrier connectivity and inter-operability, point (wye)(where the rail passenger Terminal of Chattanooga Choo Choo fame operated( and exists/(ed) as a hotel/restaurant). This piece of rail real estate, which presumably carries associated air rights/subterranean rights, water rights, etc.) COULD BE, if managed properly as a state asset with “bargaining” power, at lease renewal/rejection time, THE SPRINGBOARD to expanded rail passenger/transit and/or maglev service(s) across the state of Georgia. At the very least we may have an easy path to connect two very nice aquaria(sp?), and other entertainment and transport termani!Report

    Reply
  7. Chris Johnston says:

    @ writes_of_weigh
    Regarding the W&A route, who would use it other than commuters? There’s probably not many of them north of Cartersville. Delta flies about 200,000 passengers a year from Chattanooga to Atlanta, so the route might be able to snare half.
    The W&A route went into Union Station in Chattanooga, not Terminal Station. Terminal Station opened in 1909.Report

    Reply

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