By Maria Saporta and Amy Wenk
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Feb. 3, 2017
As Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed faces his last year in office, he looks to continue the city’s growth by completing several deals and also hopes to secure his legacy as a fiscally-responsible city leader.
Reed sat down with the editorial staff of Atlanta Business Chronicle on Jan. 31 to preview his State of the City address scheduled for Feb. 2.
In the wide-ranging interview, Reed talked about several current issues.
- Reed is optimistic the Underground Atlanta deal will close with developer WRSInc. although it missed his Jan. 31 deadline;
- The mayor appeared lukewarm to the idea of downtown getting a casino and he wanted to be sure Atlanta would have a voice in whether such an attraction would be developed;
- Reed is bullish about the city’s movie and video business – saying 2017 will be the biggest year yet and that Atlanta soon will surpass New York and become the second biggest movie hub in the country (see adjacent story);
- The mayor anticipates leaving office with a $175 million budget surplus, and he said the biggest challenge for his successor will be to not blow the budget and to maintain Atlanta’s improved credit rating;
- Reed also said he would seek legislative approval for Atlantans to vote on a tenth of a penny sales tax referendum during the November ballot;
- And the mayor voiced support for the now-fired Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, who is from Atlanta. Yates expressed concern about the legal implications of the administration’s executive order limiting the immigration of refugees from seven Muslim countries;
- Reed also addressed the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into the E.R. Mitchell Jr. bribery case where $1 million was paid in order to influence the awarding of city contracts.
Reed is clearly proud of the development that’s come to the city in the past several years.
“If you look at our 2015 year, we had $2.9 billion in new construction — that’s the highest level of new construction at any time in the city’s history,” Reed said. “We think we will eclipse that in 2016 (final numbers were not available by press time).”
He added there are currently 22 projects underway within a mile and a half of the Atlanta Beltline, one of the biggest urban renewal projects in the country.
Reed also expressed confidence that the Underground Atlanta sale to WRS Inc. will go forward.
“Underground will happen,” said Reed, later elaborating that the “the legal agreements are being drafted on what is certainly one of the five most complex real estate transactions that have ever occurred in the state.”
Reed said he had met last week with the developers as well as their financial backers, and the documents were being prepared to satisfy all the parties involved.
“We are in the closing stages,” Reed said. “I’m highly confident that we will close with WRS.”
The South Carolina real estate company has been working on the Underground deal for nearly four years, and it was the sole bidder to buy the entertainment complex.
WRS, which has been managing the complex for more than a year, plans a $350 million development with retail and residential towers.
Reed is much less supportive of the possibility of a casino being developed in downtown Atlanta, given proposed legislation currently winding its way through the General Assembly.
“I don’t have the enthusiasm about gaming,” Reed said. “There’s no bill on gaming that can pass without the support of people in Atlanta at the ballot. The notion that you will have a measure that does not provide Atlanta some ability to deal with all the adverse effects of gaming related to alcoholism, related to increased foreclosures, related to family disruption … There has to be some accommodation for the city to deal with these challenges. Although the lights and sizzle tend to obfuscate them.”
Reed said he has been restrained on the issue until the legislation has progressed beyond the draft stage.
“There will be an opportunity for the city of Atlanta to speak and make our feelings known,” he said. “I’m trying to be very respectful of the Georgia General Assembly. But respect does not mean submission.”
One of the mayor’s key bragging points has been that he’s been able to grow the city’s financial reserves from $7.4 million when he took office to $153 million today.
“It is my goal is to leave office with $175 million in our rainy day fund,” Reed said, adding the city has the highest credit rating in 50 years and hasn’t seen a tax increase in eight years. “I think we will be able make a strong argument that Atlanta has the resources in the future to do what it needs to do.”
Reed also would like to increase the public’s support of the city’s arts and cultural organizations. He hopes to get approval from the Georgia Legislature to be able to have a referendum on November’s ballot for a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for arts and cultural organizations.
The mayor said that fractional sales tax would generate between $10 million and $15 million a year.
Regarding the Jan. 30th firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, Reed showed some local pride.
“She demonstrated courageous, ethical leadership at a time when the country needed it,” Reed said. “The city couldn’t be more proud of her.”
When it came to the recent march for women and social justice as well as the protest against the ban on the U.S. accepting immigrants from seven Muslim countries, Reed expressed support.
“I’m really proud of the people who are exercising their First Amendment rights and the way they have spoken up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” he said. “We are going to continue work diligently to create a safe environment for all these protests and conversations to occur.”
In contrast, Reed said the best possible outcome of the investigation of E.R Mitchell Jr. will be to prosecute the people involved.
“I think the best possible outcome is for every single person who violated the law to be prosecuted to the fullest extent,” Reed said. “But I want to be crystal clear about how I feel. I’ve given my life to this job. To have my administration and my team besmirched by the incident … is completely unacceptable to me. I am going to use all of my power to see that it is brought to a close in a way that is transparent and open.”
He added the city will be organizing a way to display documents related to the investigation for public inspection. “My administration has not fought open records requests,” he said.
When asked about his future once he leaves office, Reed joked, “I’ll be running for a lemonade stand in the Bahamas.”