By Maria Saporta
Published in the ABC on Friday, August 3, 2012
The effort to pass the regional transportation referendum also was a test for the Atlanta business community: Would it have the power and influence to get the region to pass the1 percent sales tax?
For decades, the Atlanta business community has been credited for its ability to lead numerous initiatives — getting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to leading the effort to change the state’s flag.
But the failure to get the Atlanta region to pass the transportation referendum has caused some soul-searching among business leaders and what it means to their ability to advance the region.
“The business community went all out for this,” said David Allman, a developer with Regent Partners LLC who also is chair of the Livable Communities Coalition and the Buckhead Community Improvement District.
“It just shows you how balkanized our region is. It’s so dispersed that there’s no one entity or group of entities that can control the agenda.”
The business community ended up raising about $8 million for both its advertising and education campaigns aimed at getting voters to pass the tax.
“I don’t think there’s anything we could have done differently that would have affected the outcome,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “I don’t think if we had had $10 million we could have moved the needle. We were hit by a tsunami.”
Dave Stockert, CEO of Post Properties Inc. and chair of Citizens for Transportation Mobility, said losing by a 2-1 vote was sobering.
“We ran into a buzz saw — a deep, deep vein of voter distrust and fear,” Stockert said. “Our responsibility was to carry the message. It was a complicated issue, and we could not overcome this deep sense of distrust.”
Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which was instrumental in putting together the 11 campaigns outside metro Atlanta (which passed in three regions), called it a perfect storm.
“It was the worst political climate in the worst economy in the middle of the summer during a presidential election year,” Clark said. “The odds were stacked against you.”
From Clark’s perspective, the campaign actually unified the business community like never before.
“The local chambers, the regional chambers, the business associations have come together and built a great coalition,” Clark said. “We have built a great coalition that has been really special. Win, lose or draw, that is a significant vehicle for us as we attack other big issues facing the state of Georgia.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed praised business leaders for their efforts at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis on the evening of July 31 when the Untie Atlanta campaign conceded defeat.
“I want to thank the business community in the city of Atlanta,” Reed said. “I don’t think there’s a better business community anywhere in the world.”
The unprecedented investment by the business community in the referendum campaign raised some concern that companies may be reluctant to write big checks in the future for other efforts.
Stockert, however, said that companies are used to ups and downs in their businesses.
“It certainly does not cause me to shy away,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt that when there’s the opportunity for us to work together as a business community, we will do it, and that will happen before you know it.”
In fact, Stockert said the issue of congestion, traffic and transportation investment is still “unsettled” in metro Atlanta.
“We have got to deal with this issue, and we will deal with it,” Stockert said. “It’s just going to take longer than if it had passed. There’s going to be a process. Personally, I’m not ready to call it a day.”
During the campaign, several business leaders did make numerous statements that seemed to raise the stakes of the referendum. In addition to repeatedly saying there was no Plan B, some business leaders said that if it failed, Atlanta should put up billboards saying we’re closed for business.
During the closing session of the LINK trip to Washington, D.C., in April, Williams said that if the referendum didn’t pass, “we should just go to a funeral.”
But Stockert said that kind of hyperbole comes with the territory.
“When you’re trying to communicate messages that are large and complex, you have to use strong language to convey the facts,” he said.
On the morning after the referendum failed, Williams said it was important to “let the smoke clear” before trying to figure out how to proceed.
“This has bonded the business community of the region and the state like never before,” Williams said. “We have been out on the field of battle together and covered each other’s backs.”
Otis White, president of Atlanta-based Civic Strategies, said he was struck how the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and other local chambers had come together on this issue when they have competed in the past.
“We have got a hell of a coalition now,” Williams said. “Now we need to figure out how do we collectively and cooperatively market this city and bring business here.”
Despite the unprecedented cooperation, White said that “until very, very late in the process, it seemed like there was no theme to this.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin also said that part of the problem was in the messaging of the referendum. She said it was “flawed from the beginning” because of the way the project list was put together.
“A unified plan would have resulted in a unified message. They had the structure. They had the good will in what they did,” Franklin said of the business community. “But for some reason voters didn’t buy it.”
For Allman, the implications of the negative vote “are significant,” especially when he thinks about what it means for his children and grandchildren.
“You have to pick up the pieces,” Allman said. “But this is still a very big, vibrant city. The vote just shows how power is dispersed. There is no coalition of any kind that can carry the day.”