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President Obama’s urban agenda and what it means for metro Atlanta and Georgia

After years of being on the outs, cities now believe they have a friend in the White House.

“In some ways, we have elected our first urban president,” said Georgia Sen. David Adelman, who chairs the state Senate’s urban affairs committee.

President Barack Obama has spent most of life in cities — Honolulu, Jakarta, Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Chicago.

“He has embraced his urban roots,” added Adelman, citing the fact that in his first couple of months in office, Obama established the Office of Urban Affairs. And the top leaders in his administration are “people who have direct experience with cities,” with the largest group coming from Chicago. “The entire cabinet is virtually urban.”

So how will that translate into specific urban initiatives? The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, also known as the first stimulus package, funneled about $787 billion to Georgia.

Only $292 billion of that money was actually money to be allocated given that the stimulus funds also offered tax credits and designated funding to certain programs.

And here is the rub. For the sake of expediency, most of the federal stimulus dollars were passed through the state government and its agencies. And Georgia, like most states in the union, has an anti-urban state government and legislature.

“Georgia politics since the beginning has mostly been about resentment of Atlanta,” said Adelman, who represents DeKalb County. And Adelman does not see those attitudes changing in the next couple of years.

Once the 2010 census is tabulated, however, metro Atlanta’s influence is expected to increase with the possibility of at least one new urban congressional district.

“For the first time in the history of our state, the majority of the people (in Georgia) will live in metro Atlanta,” Adelman said. “Winning campaigns might be willing to embrace an urban affairs agenda.”

Adelman, a partner with Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan law firm, was part of a panel Friday morning at the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, one of the best monthly forums in Atlanta. He was able to speak from his unique vantage point as the director of Obama’s presidential campaign in Georgia.

Leon Eplan, former planning commissioner for the city of Atlanta, moderated the program. The other panelist was Dan Reuter, director of land-use planning for the Atlanta Regional Commission, who described the growing political power of Georgia’s cities.

“Eighty percent of the state’s population lives in urban areas,” Reuter said. “And in metro Atlanta, 80 percent of the jobs and 80 percent of the residents live in five counties. We are more urban sometimes than we know.”

Georgia certainly is more urban than most of its legislators realize or admit.

“The rural politicians control the state,” Adelman said. “It’s still good politics to run against Atlanta.”

For the first federal stimulus package, that translated into the city of Atlanta and the metro region not getting their fair share (based on population) of those dollars.

“The most effective way to get the money out to shovel-ready projects was through state agencies and defined channels,” Adelman said. “In a perfect world, where we are not trying to stabilize economies… there could be a more thoughtful metod about the delivery of funding. Hopefully, when this economy recovers, this (funding going directly to cities, counties and metro planning organizations) is what we will see.”

Signs are hopeful.

The Obama administration is accentuating a change that began last fall in President George W. Bush’s administration where investments in transportation are made in sync with land-use policies.

“Housing policy, transportation policy and urban policy are coming together for the next transportation bill,” Reuter said.

By having a coordinated urban policy that promotes the development of environmentally-friendly cities, there’s promise that metro areas will finally be back in the forefront.

That means there will be more investments in transit, urban infrastructure, mixed-income housing in town centers and greener developments. Finally, there’s an administration that inherently understands the societal costs of suburban development and appreciates the value of cities.

In February after signing the executive order establishing an Office of Urban Affairs, President Obama told U.S. mayors: “We all share the same vision for our cities…vibrant places that provide our children every chance to learn and the grow, that allow our businesses and workers the best opporutnity to innovate and succeed, that let our older Americans live out their best years in the midst of all that metropolitann life can offer.”

For metro Atlanta, the question will be whether it will be able to seize upon the opportunities being offered by a pro-urban federal administration.

Will the Obama administration increase dedicated funding to cities, counties and metro areas rather than relying on an anti-Atlanta state government?

Will Georgia begin electing representatives who understand that the demographic trends are building the politican muscle of urban areas?

Will metro Atlanta figure out how to build direct channels of influence with Washington, D.C. — giving the region less need to beg the state legislature for even minimal assistance and support?

Let’s hope the answer to those three questions is “yes.”

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.



  1. New Atlantan June 9, 2009 8:29 am


    Great article as always. How you manage to stay optimistic in this city is beyond me, but I appreciate it nonetheless. It seems our best short term hope is that the federal government will, as you suggest, begin allocating money directly to important urban transportation projects. Maybe we could see the Beltline actually built out sooner than its blindingly slow 25 year timeline? On that same topic, are federal funds actually being pursued for local alternative transportation projects? I know Portland recently received a big federal boost for their streetcar expansion (http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/04/feds_approve_75_million_for_st.html).

    Also, if I may just play editor for a moment, the total of the stimulus package was $787 billion. Georgia’s allocation was about $2.6B.Report

  2. AF June 10, 2009 11:05 am

    I tend to disagree with the view of the evil state government hating Atlanta. I think that the government has done great things to grow the city but keep the federal government from medling in the city, which ultimately is bad for growth.

    In 1996 homegrown leaders brought the Olympics, infastructure and MARTA (esp.) was grown. We saw growth because there was actual demand. In 1999, we saw developments like Atlantic Station come to the surface and begin building because there was actual demand for that environment, a continuation of the idea born out of Colony Square in the 1970’s. And now we see the Mid Town Alliance. And most recently, the State government attracted a Fortune 500 company with vast job creation not only for their employees, but also for the grocery stores, home builders and car dealerships that are hurting in the community. All of these entities coming from homegrown leadership with minimal federal government intrusion.

    Why would we ever need the federal government’s help? We can do it here, I don’t think the state government is against Atlanta, I think they are against wasteful spending on a city that they do not live in. Ultimately, things will be built as the tax base expands through a growth in those paying taxes. We do that through job creation. Jobs are created by lowering corporate taxes to attract businesses here and by encouraging small businesses that already operate here.

    — I live in Atlanta and I ride public transit.Report

  3. Job Creator June 11, 2009 9:51 am

    I agree with AF. I’m a small business owner that employs over 30 people and a reduction in corporate taxes would definitely stimulate the growth of my business. I don’t recall the Constitution outlining any urban growth responsibilities for the federal government. That responsibility lies with the people living in those areas.Report

  4. Curious Atlantan June 12, 2009 10:13 am

    With regards to the last two comments, I think there is a bit of confusion as to what the role of the federal government is when it comes to infrastructure.
    I am not sure that people realize how much the federal policies in the last 50 years have encouraged a particular type of growth (rural and suburban) versus another (urban). A welcome rearrangement of priorities seems to have happened in the current federal administration and the urban areas will hopefully finally get their fair share.
    I agree that there is an element of local responsibility as well but the federal government policies are essential for a real change in these matters.Report

  5. bmen123 June 13, 2009 10:09 am

    If the statistics in this article are true we need stimulus money ASAP. http://www.bizjournals.com/edit_special/80.html?page=1

    Our growth rate is estimated at 7.5 million by 2025. There wont be any stimlus handouts then. We need impact studies and funds today to build a first rate metrorail system. Marta will be a joke compared to what we’ll need.Report

  6. AF June 17, 2009 10:21 am

    We don’t need hand outs. I don’t think you realize what bailout will mean for this city. We will start a long path to an ultimate end in federal government intrusion. It seems like a more reasonable thing to stimulate actual demand (growing the city) whereby growth will be a by product meeting that demand rather than building alot of infastructure with Federal Loans (which bail outs are as we ultimately fit the bill). I think everyone wants a New York, but there are not enough everyone’s here… why load up the city/state’s debt burden for something that is not here (forcasting of population) and something that doesn’t grow the economy, infastructure.

    If you put that infastructure spending to work on reducing taxes for all we will attract both workers and businesses- that increases the tax base and ultimately the state and city will reap a broader tax base reward. All keeping Obama (more broadly Federal Democrats and Republicans) out of our state. Once they are in the party they dictate what type of punch is served and who gets to dance.Report

  7. atlpaddy June 17, 2009 11:22 am

    “I don’t think the state government is against Atlanta, I think they are against wasteful spending on a city that they do not live in” AF

    Yes, the state government wants to wastefully spend that money in the rural and suburban regions that they come from. Give me a break. And how long would the State of Georgia last without those intrusion in the way of federal highway money, or federal dollars for the dredging for deep harbor access in Savannah, or federal assistance of Georgia’s public schools (including UGA and GATech) that make the help to make the state attractive to outside investment, or federal subsidization of Medicaid in Georgia and Peachcare? All this anti-Federalism following the election of Obama sounds great in theory, but it’s hot air and folks like AF and state right’s governors like Rick Perry, Mark Sanford, and Sarah Palin know it. Those states, much like Georgia, would be in bigtime trouble without any federal assistance.Report

  8. atlpaddy June 17, 2009 11:25 am

    p.s. I’m sure that countries with a weak federal government, like Haiti, also have low taxes. Is that the model that Club For Growth and Georgia Republicans are aiming for?Report

  9. AF June 18, 2009 8:00 am


    It is actually not the case in Haiti or any of the islands for that matter because there is no stability in that region. A pillar of capitalism is stability. The players have to know that the rules are not going to change mid game. So I point to Monaco, a region with little to effectively no taxation; one of the wealthiest areas of the world. Because everyone evaluates their finances on the margin. Wealth travels where it is not exploited – eg- NCR moving to Atlanta. (which is a move by the way that will create effective and efficient growth) Not some pedestrian bridge on the south side.

    UGA, as you will notice on the Atlanta Business Chronicle site just signed a media deal worth north of $90 mm dollars. They don’t need help because they have created a program that has fans and thus the demand is there. They can grow because it is natural.

    The State would actually last alot longer on a simple payout basis if Peachcare and Medicaid was not around. All that aside, I am agnostic to the programs. But we need to run a state government that is fiscally responsible. So that means when we run out of money, much like a household, we don’t go run to the government or the citizen for help. We simply say we can’t do it.

    Your whole philosophy is predicated on the fact that we need to find money to fund all of the random (often unnecessary programs). We will never agree because you will always want big brother government to be in your life handing you things and being your sugar daddy. I view them as a redneck cousin at a family reunion, I say Hi and I think, “Man, I am glad I don’t live in Washington DC.”Report

  10. AF June 18, 2009 8:36 am

    Oh yeah, Alaska actually would not be in trouble without Federal Funding- they have what the Federales don’t; a balanced budget. Palin, as i am sure you hate her, does deserve credit because she runs a tight ship even at one point returning tax money to the tax payer. To bad she is not as smart as Katie Couric and all of her periodicals…Report


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