By Maria Saporta
The eve before the opening of the new Chick-fil-A restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive was a night unlike any other in Atlanta’s history.
The “haves” and the “have nots” huddled indoors and ate dinner in the warmth of a new Chick-fil-A restaurant on the Westside of downtown on Wednesday night braving below-freezing temperatures and ice-covered streets.
The “haves” included James Quincey, CEO of the Coca-Cola Co.; Paul Bowers, CEO of Georgia Power; Bill Rogers, CEO of SunTrust Banks; Richard Dugas, former CEO of the PulteGroup as well as Ryan Marshall, the current CEO of the Pulte Group; Alex Taylor, CEO of Cox Enterprises; Frank Blake, chairman of Delta Air Lines and past chairman of the Home Depot; with his wife Liz Blake, who serves on the Westside Future Fund; Frank Patterson, president of Pinewood Atlanta Studios; Ron Johnson, president of Clark Atlanta University; developer Jerome Russell as well as former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.
They dined next to dozens of community residents, many of whom were spending the night outdoors so they could be among the 100 people who would win a weekly Chick-fil-A meal for a year.
It has been a long-standing tradition for Chick-fil-A to have a crowd of people spending the night so they can be one of the 100 lucky winners of free sandwiches for a year.
But this time, they were joined in the event with some of the most powerful leaders in Atlanta – many of whom camping outdoors in tents on one of the coldest nights of the year.
It was a true coming together of rich and poor, black and white, men and women, young and old – gathering at “Main and Main” of Atlanta’s civil rights history – previously known as Hunter and Ashby Street and now Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard.
That is the location of the new Chick-fil-A – house that Dan Cathy built and a place that already has come to symbolize so much more than just a new fast-food restaurant.
“I’m particularly excited to be here tonight because of the significance of this location,” said Cathy, who challenged the Atlanta community several years ago to revitalize the Westside. “I can assure you that this location did not come up on our databases that we work on to find site locations for a lot of different reasons.
“But we knew that we needed to be here because of a bigger purpose that we have, which is a reflection of our corporate purpose, which is to glorify God,” Cathy continued.
“We hope that we can be a catalyst along with all the others that for years have labored here on the Westside – social organizations, ministries, churches, businesses that have labored here. Hopefully today we can get our act together as a community and govern so we can make a difference here on the Westside of Atlanta.”
Even recently-elected Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms came by to join in the celebration.
“My family’s home is just a few blocks from here,” she said. “To see this community really come full circle – it’s really a testament to the belief you have in the Westside. I look forward to spending a lot of time at this Chick-fil-A. Yeah for the Westside!”
It was Cathy who was able to attract such a gathering of people, which also included John Ahmann, executive director of the Westside Future Fund; Tracy Techau, CEO of the Boy Scouts of America – Atlanta Area Council; cardiologist Charles Wilmer; Councilmember Ivory Young; Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International; Allison Dukes of SunTrust Banks; WSB’s Clark Howard; Clark Dean of TransWestern; Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank; Georgia Power’s Michael Anderson; John Stephenson, Kim Drake and Rodney Bullard – all with Chick-fil-A as well as Cathy’s son – Andrew Cathy.
It was the younger Cathy who welcomed Quincy Springs, the franchise owner of the new Chick-fil-A, who formerly worked on the same block as the manager of the adjacent Walmart store.
“We are turning over our name and reputation to you,” he told Springs. “We know we can entrust our name to you.”
Georgia Power’s Paul Bowers told the local residents that he hoped they recognized the dedication that business leaders have towards the community.
“We want for the next generation to have a vision of what can be and have a super impact,” Bowers said. “That’s our passion. This is kind of a celebration night for all of us. We are here for a higher purpose. Our purpose is to serve you.”
After everyone had had a chance to dine of Chick-fil-A sandwiches and break bread with each other, Dan Cathy took the night to the next level.
“I have long recognized how powerful food is to bringing people together,” he said, adding that going back to ancient times, “food would be used to find common ground, to set those differences aside and to recognize our common humanity.”
Before going outdoors to spend the night, the business and civic leaders huddled around to talk about the challenges they face in their quest to lift up the Westside.
Richard Dugas, who chairs the Westside Future Fund, said the goal is to revitalize and repopulate the area without displacing the existing residents.
The Fund has established two ways for entities to contribute – an investment fund to help acquire properties in the community and a philanthropic fund to help make sure rents remain affordable for the existing residents.
During the 1960s, the four neighborhoods that are part of the Westside Future Fund had a population of about 50,000 people. Now it’s closer to 15,000 with more than 80 percent people who are renters. Those are the ones who are the most vulnerable to gentrification and displacement.
Liz Blake, retired general counsel for Habitat for Humanity International and on the WFF board, said the situation was urgent because people already were being displaced.
“We have a social contract with the 15,000 people who live here,” said Blake, adding that donations and investments are needed now to make sure people are not pushed out. “We need gobs and gobs of money.”
If Atlanta can get this right, it would become a national model of how to revitalize a community while protecting its residents from being displaced and improving their lives at the same time.
No matter what, it was a night to remember for the millionaires and billionaires spending the night in one of Atlanta’s poorest communities.