Q and A with Erika Smith, Atlanta’s new Southside community and economic development manager
By Maggie Lee
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks often about there having been some physical decline in southwest Atlanta, compared to when she grew up there. Last last month, she announced the appointment of a point person in Atlanta’s development authority who will have the sole job of focusing on development south of Interstate 20.
“If you have been a part of this community for as long as I have, you often hearken back to the community that this used to be. We know that the faces are still here, the passion is still here, the love is still here. But physically it seems as if this very special part of our community has somehow been lost and forgotten,” said Bottoms, introducing Erika Smith at a community event last month.
SR spoke to Smith about her new job as Southside Community & Economic Development Manager.
Smith said she started her career in corporate marketing and financial services for companies like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America. She worked in Lagos, Nigeria helping develop a prepaid card ecosystem; and that job meant interfacing with a lot of state and national government officials. She said that propelled her interest in economic development. She’s worked at Fulton County’s economic development organization and moved to Invest Atlanta last year.
SaportaReport: This job title, Southside community and economic development manager — to an outsider that sounds a little abstract. What does this job entail? What are you going to do?
Erika Smith: I would sum it up in two different categories.
One is a focus on growth plus equity. So, looking at our economic development strategy for the Southside in a comprehensive way to ensure that we are attracting investment to these areas, but with a community lens.
And then second, you could sum it up as people, place and culture. We have this region that has seen a lack of significant investment for many decades and now is the target [of investment], with the BeltLine and other catalytic projects. But how can we continue to stay on that growth pattern, but making sure that we are serving the existing businesses, the existing residents, honoring this very unique culture that’s been created, and leverage that to make other businesses and developers attracted to moving into the areas?
SR: Will you go back to that to the first point a little bit? You said looking at growth and equity, looking at development strategy in a comprehensive way, but but with a community lens. What does that mean to, say, a small business owner, or the man on the street or the lady in the park?
ES: For a small business, it means: assessing what are the current resources available, [such as] our current small business loans; partnering with Worksource [Atlanta’s workforce development agency] to understand what type of resources there are for hiring staff; and then identifying how we can be more creative in developing new programming.
For example, the partnership that we have with Wells Fargo [for $12,000 in grants for Campellton Road business renovations and equipment] came out of meeting with business owners and recognizing that a lot of our businesses have been in business for years, but they may not have had the extra funds to invest in improving their interior spaces.
So, the ability to have strategic partnerships, develop those strategic partnerships, to bring resources that are designed to address their specific needs; versus some of the global programs that we have in Invest Atlanta.
SR: Now you said “specific needs” there — that kind of already brings me to my next question. What are the specific needs in the Southside? What are the things out there that are lacking?
ES: I wouldn’t phrase it as “lacking.” I would phrase it as “the opportunities that exist.”
One is to help to cultivate and grow small businesses so that they can hire additional staff. We know that small businesses typically will hire people who may be seen as not an appropriate employee of some of the other businesses throughout the city.
Secondly is the ability to add more affordable housing — I would say a mix of housing: affordable and market rate to build density.
Thirdly, I will look at our aging commercial corridors and our aging shopping centers and see how we can attract funding to them so we can bring in quality retail that addresses the needs of our existing community but also may be strong enough to be destination retail — meaning that people may want to come to this specific restaurant from outside of southwest and southeast Atlanta. But it also is designed to provide food for existing residents.
SR: So, like retail and commercial both for the local people but maybe … some stuff that people will drive to, to eat there, shop there?
ES: Yes and not only that, we do need to work closely on the economic development side with our state partners to look at how can we house more of those major employers on the Southside.
As we’re bringing in 100 jobs, 200 jobs, in partnership with developers who are building catalytic sites, like The Casey Foundation [one of the partners in Pittsburgh Yards], like Fort Mac: How can we help them, through incentives and marketing of the area, [choose the Southside] as a destination for their offices as well?
SR: I hear something similar from people in south DeKalb. They say, ‘You know we’re very residential and we need to work on getting more employers down here.’ Does that sound like, does that seem fair for the Southside of Atlanta too?
ES: I would say it sounds fair. I will say we have good employers there, economic drivers. But of course, if you look at the balance of the city, you can definitely say the density of large employers is not existent on the Southside compared to what you will see in Midtown, Buckhead, North Atlanta, et cetera. So those are all opportunities.
SR: What else would you tell people, what else should people know?
ES: I would say people should know that this is a very intentional effort that, with the mayor’s leadership, we recognize that we do need to drive private investment.
We want to continue to build relationships with the private sector and the public sector as well as philanthropy to create a holistic strategy. We want to be very engaged with the community — that’s businesses and residents — to ensure that our strategies are here to benefit and help move the economic mobility, increase economic mobility and provide the jobs and opportunities that everyone deserves in this city.