By Maria Saporta
PHILADELPHIA – Working as a region is as much an art as it as a science. After 18 annual LINK trips to other cities in the United States and one to Vancouver, B.C., metro Atlanta’s attempts to create regional relationships across 10 counties is still a work in progress.
Perhaps one of the significant lessons that Atlantans have learned from other metro areas is that they struggle with many of the same issues as we do, and that includes being able to work together as a region.
About 111 regional Atlanta leaders spent three days visiting the Philadelphia area where on the first night, they heard from former Gov. Ed Rendell, who also was a former mayor of the state’s largest city, that Atlanta leaders needed to think and act like a region.
By the next morning, after hearing from a couple of panels, Atlanta’s LINK delegation realized that Rendell was telling Atlantans to do as he says, not necessarily model itself after what Philadelphia does. The Greater Philadelphia metro area has 350 local governments covering three states.
“I wouldn’t say we love our local governments, but we have a lot of them, observed Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (RPC).
Although it is one economic region, economist and housing expert Ira Goldstein said: “You don’t see much cooperation across municipalities, or heaven forbid, states.”
Maybe it’s a case of misery loves company, but members of Atlanta’s LINK delegation could relate. The Atlanta Regional Commission – the planning agency for the metro area’s 10 counties – has been experiencing tensions between and among mayors, county commission chairs and its citizen members.
There was some grumbling on the trip that the signature city mayor — Atlanta’s Kasim Reed — had skipped the trip, raising concern that he is becoming less involved and interested in regional issues. What is not known is whether there is a return of an urban-suburban split in the Atlanta region — exacerbated by such issues as the Atlanta Braves move to Cobb County.
On a positive note, Metro Atlanta Chamber President Hala Moddelmog and her team members are busy building bridges with other chambers, business organizations and nonprofits throughout the region.
Philadelphia leaders did give Atlanta’s LINK delegation one plan that worked to bring its region together.
“This region was seeing the same rise in interest in cycling and walking by every one, but they were all working on their own projects,” said Feather Houstoun, senior advisor to the Wyncote Foundation and former president of the William Penn Foundation. “Dozens of organizations got together and created a comprehensive plan to create linkages to create a (bicycle and walking trail) plan throughout our region.”
The Penn Foundation donated $10 million towards the project, and the Philadelphia region won a $23.2 million federal grant to implement one of the most extensive trail networks in the country. That one effort has done more to bring the region together than any other effort.
“People want to live in a place where they can walk and bike,” explained Louis Cappelli Jr., a director of Camden County, N.J. and a former chairman of the Delaware Valley RPC.
That was music to Roswell Mayor Jere Wood’s ears. Several years ago, he had been an advocate for metro Atlanta to establish a bicycle and walking trail plan that would help knit the region together.
I have been on 17 of the 18 LINK trips (I was unable to get approval from my former employer to go on the 2008 trip to Denver). And I must say that this one was one of the best. Why?
Doug Hooker, ARC’s executive director; Kerry Armstrong, ARC’s chairman; and Rob LeBeau, ARC’s community development director who organizes the trip, provided daily feedback sessions – allowing LINK delegates to share their thoughts of what they had learned each day and how they could apply that to Atlanta.
The ARC also has been trying to bring new people and more diversity among members of the LINK delegation. This trip did not have as many elected officials as usual because several were facing re-election campaigns. Also, there were fewer university presidents because it was occurring close to college graduation events.
Despite those voids, the Philadelphia LINK trip was one of the best. Each day, LINK delegates were asked about the most important themes and topics to the region based on what they had heard. Here are the top answers. On the first day, two issues were basically tied:
- state transportation funding (40 percent)
- region must work together and compete as a region (39 percent)
- walkability – centers connected to neighborhoods (13 percent)
On the second day, the most important topics were as follows:
- collaborative approach to economic development (46 percent)
- anchor institutions as developer and economic institution (28 percent)
- art as a change agent with a social purpose (16 percent)
On the last day, here were the top issues:
- education must be a part of every discussion (64 percent)
- education to address poverty and wrap-around services (14 percent)
- innovation broadly conceived – not just tech (14 percent)
Then as part of the closing exercise, the group was asked to give its final answer to this question: What is the most important theme/topic for ARC to address?
- state transportation funding (38 percent)
- work together as a region (25 percent)
- education much be a part of every discussion (20 percent)
- collaborative approach to economic development (18 percent)
The good news?
It seems as though metro Atlanta’s LINK delegation has a pretty good idea of what we need to work on as a region.
Now if we can just figure out how we can work as a region to get more state transportation funding, improve our education and develop a collaborative approach to economic development.
Piece of cake. See you on the next LINK trip.
Here are all the stories that I wrote from the 2014 Philadelphia LINK trip: