Sunday, February 06, 2011

‘We’re not really rooting for ourselves anymore’

By By Bill Torpy

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kasim Reed wasn’t shy about touting his accomplishments as a first-year mayor: putting more cops on the street, operating on a leaner budget, making good on his promise to reopen recreation centers. Then he paused, offered a judgment and issued a challenge.

“There’s a pall that’s over this town that is unacceptable,” he told a roomful of civic leaders and journalists last week at the Atlanta Press Club.

Atlanta, lulled to complacency by a frenetic economic boom and battered by a historic bust, hasn’t been doing what it does best — swinging for the fences, he said. And other cities are catching up.

“The process of competing against other cities — of saying you’re the best and having to show you’re the best — is healthy for us all,” he said, sounding like a college football coach at halftime. “And when you’re not trying to be the best you are declining.”

Today, the world’s attention will focus on Dallas, Atlanta’s big rival, as the Super Bowl is staged in the brand-spanking-new $1.3 billion Cowboys stadium. All anyone remembers of Atlanta’s last Super Bowl a decade ago is that it was icy.

Last week, Charlotte, Atlanta’s scrappy little sister, reeled in the 2012 Democratic National Convention and gained some regional bragging rights. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch rued its city’s losing effort, saying St. Louis “could not match the allure of staffing a convention in the booming capital of the New South.”

Ouch. Charlotte?

It all begs the question: Is Atlanta — shameless booster, collector of business headquarters, Olympic city — losing its luster?

Not exactly, Reed said in a later interview. “But we’re not really rooting for ourselves anymore.”

The last time Atlanta reached beyond its grasp, it snagged the 1996 Olympics and finally laid claim to what it had been calling itself for years — “international city.” He said the $3.5 billion it cost to stage the Olympics “led to $80 billion [in investment in the city] over the next decade.”

A real estate and construction frenzy transformed the city and region, then crashed hard in 2007, perhaps best symbolized by the 8-acre hole sitting in the midst of Buckhead where the $1.5 billion Streets of Buckhead development was started, then stalled.

“We need a second act,” the mayor said, something Olympian in scale to rally the region.

Reed traveled to the White House last month to personally appeal to President Barack Obama for help in a $551 million proposal to deepen the Port of Savannah, not as thrilling as Olympic flames but a lot longer lasting and practical, he said. His aim is for the state to become — in prime Atlanta overspeak — “the logistics center for the Western Hemisphere.”

It’s a lofty designation he’s thrown around before.

In business and politics, image and reality sometimes blur. And big plans and pronouncements are sometimes needed to get attention.

Joel Babbit, a longtime Atlanta advertising executive, has been hired at least twice through the decades to install a lasting new tag line for the “City Too Busy to Hate.” Neither campaign ever took hold. Currently the city has no such branding campaign.

Babbit said Reed is creating buzz, which is a very good thing.

“It’s very motivating,” he said. “In terms of image, it says the city is aggressive and sets aggressive goals. It’s better than any marketing slogan.”

Rusty Paul, a former legislator who headed the state GOP, laughed when told of Reed’s comments about Atlanta’s potential decline. “It sounds like the speech I’ve been giving,” he said. “I’m glad the mayor is talking this way. If you’re going to fail, fail big.”

“Atlanta was the regional hub of the South because it did things first; Atlanta was on the cutting edge of transportation,” Paul said. “But, after the Olympics, we sat back and coasted. We expected growth to keep coming like it would never end. We got lulled into complacency.”

In recent years, cities such as Charlotte, Dallas and even Nashville have been chipping away at Atlanta’s regional dominance, he said. Both Charlotte and Dallas have invested heavily in light rail, a concept Atlanta is just embracing. Dallas opened its first light-rail line in 1996 and now has 72 miles, with a $1.8 billion, 20-mile addition that opened in December.

Charlotte has nearly 10 miles of light rail cutting through its downtown, helping to spur some additional development.

Last year, Atlanta was turned down in its bid for $300 million in federal funding to install a light-rail line down Peachtree Street. “I really pushed for it,” Reed said.

Later, the city went back and garnered $47.6 million in federal funding to go toward a $72 million, 2.6 mile line from the King Center to Centennial Olympic Park.

Projects like that can help better the entire region, but leaders must regain a focus on the big picture, Paul said.

“Nobody has sat down and figured out what Atlanta wants to be in the 21st century,” he said. “I’m glad the mayor is talking this way.”

Paul was heartened last month to see a sign that the state and city might actually work together. Reed and other city officials were originally left off a panel of metro leaders that will decide what transportation projects will be funded if a 1 percent sales tax is passed in a 2012 referendum. But House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from North Georgia, forced members to include Reed.

“He said, ‘No, we’re not going to leave Atlanta off. We’re going to do business differently than before,’ ” Paul said. “That is the kind of leadership we need to have.”

A successful vote could raise $5 billion to $8 billion for badly needed road projects to ease the congestion that threatens to scare off businesses that might potentially move to the city.

John Brock, who is chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises and chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said business leaders are pleased by what they have seen lately.

“He has the best relationship with state government that we’ve seen in a long time,” Brock said. “It is critical to our future that we pass this referendum.”

Metro Atlanta has long been a destination for businesses and residents. The 20-county region has added more than a million new residents since 2000, but recently growth has slowed to a trickle. That’s largely because there are 230,000 fewer jobs than there were in December 2007, a nearly 9 percent drop. Paychecks here are shrinking. Per capita income in the region dropped 4.8 percent to $36,482 in 2009 from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Unemployment still hovers above 10 percent, more than a point higher than the national average. And from the peak of August 2007 until late 2010, Atlanta home values are down nearly 25 percent, according to the S&P Case-Shiller Index.

Chamber president Sam Williams refuses to concede Atlanta has lost a step relative to other cities. He said the city has gained three Fortune 500 headquarters in the past two years — NCR and First Data Corp. relocated to the area, and AGL Resources forced itself onto the list with acquisitions.

Charlotte leaders are still celebrating their success at pulling in the Democratic convention, a feat accomplished by Atlanta in 1988. “We feel it will make Charlotte hip and happening,” said Lynn Wheeler, the former mayor pro-tem and chair of the City Council’s economic development committee. “We pride ourselves as having a can-do spirit. Our business leaders go after it.”

Charlotte had a good run with banking headquarters being concentrated there, but it’s suffering because of the financial meltdown. The city’s unemployment rate is higher than Atlanta’s. Even the new $200 million NASCAR Museum, which Charlotte pulled away from Atlanta in a bidding war five years ago, is losing money.

Charlotte leaders aren’t fooling themselves into thinking their city will overtake Atlanta. At 2.1 million residents, it’s a little more than a third the size of metro Atlanta, which weighs in at nearly 5.5 million residents. Charlotte’s competition is Indianapolis or Cincinnati or even Cleveland, Wheeler said. “We always said in Charlotte that we don’t want to be the next Atlanta,” she said. “We’re not competing head on.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, said audacious plans are part and parcel of the city, recalling that when he was mayor 40 years ago, the city fathers coined the slogan “Atlanta: The New International City.”

Harvey Newman was a young professor in the early 1970s when Massell and others concocted the “international city” line. “When I heard Sam Massell say that, I rolled on the floor laughing,” said Newman, now the public management chairman of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

He said he’s not laughing anymore.

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