Sunday Issue: Where does Atlanta stand?

The Editorial Board’s Opinion
The philosopher Socrates famously pronounced the unexamined life as not worth living. This saying has endured because many through the ages have intuitively gotten his profound point.
Contemplative questions arising around the unexamined life can be applied to the great agglomeration that is metro Atlanta. For cities and other geographic clusters are living organisms in their own way.
And some are far healthier than others. The most robust regions work hard to seize and defend their prosperity. That’s an easier task when key players are pulling together — and not pulling apart. Or prone to a dulling indifference to what’s going on across town — especially when changes, actions or inaction threaten ripple effects that will roll far outside a given entity’s borders.
There is indeed danger in a myopic focus on the individual pieces of an organism. Obsessing over parts can lead to ignoring or mistreating the whole.
We believe metro Atlanta needs to forcefully confront the most important questions that hector us today. And act quickly to address them. Doing otherwise will threaten the strengths of this place we call home.
Foremost among these is the matter of just where metro Atlanta now stands among its national and global economic peers. What endangers our economic interests?
Knowing the answers and being brave enough to act on that knowledge can help summon another golden age for this metro. Conversely, if we stubbornly stick our heads into Georgia clay we will trigger the beginning of the end of what so many worked so tirelessly to achieve here.
Kickstarting this analysis and conversation is why The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published another round of “Atlanta Forward” news stories last week. We’re a part of this community and want to see it prosper.
That’s why we dispatched reporters to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex and Charlotte. Those Southern metros have proven to be scrappy competitors that bear watching.
Much of what we found is unsettling. On multiple key metrics, other cities are now setting a brisk pace while we’re showing signs of becoming winded, dispirited and dropping back in the pack.
That shouldn’t continue. And it won’t if we surround our weaknesses and smother them beneath bold, far-reaching action. We know quite well where our largest problems lurk. Metro Atlanta and the state now need to coalesce around needed fixes.
A sizable part of reconditioning this metro will come through working together in finding more effective ways to get the big things done. Too many local leaders are afraid to utter the word “region”. And our standing among the globe’s great cities is skewed because of that fear.
The result is predictable. We too often play intramural games of “Us” vs. “Them.” In so doing, we  forgo larger wins that could result from running well-coordinated plays of a regional “Us” against the world.
Successful companies recognize that a sharp, broad strategy begets individual tactics needed to win. It doesn’t work nearly as well the other way around.
Which raises the question of what is metro/regional Atlanta’s big strategy to win? Besides cheap taxes. Who besides the Metro Atlanta Chamber can name our united selling points to newcomers? Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed can rattle off in his sleep the game plan he says has fueled the city’s recent successes. Other elected leaders from Acworth to Senoia can likely do the same when it comes to their turf.
What’s our strategy, though, for governing and tuning a 28-county behemoth that’s in a high-stakes economic tussle against the world? What sort of changes in both  mindset and cooperative governance will let us conceive, build and implement what’s needed to win, especially when it comes to basic infrastructure?
As the AJC reported this week, other cities are rapidly remaking their communities to reflect 21st century needs. They’re gaining productive people and job-rich companies as a result.
Meanwhile, the disparate collection of Monopoly pieces that comprises metro Atlanta continues on with business as usual.
Money-sucking perpetual traffic jams? No biggie, everybody has ’em. So sad. We may, eventually, scrounge up enough money for a partial fix — and call that grand success. Or maybe not.
As Texan J.D. Granger told the AJC’s Dan Chapman last week, “If you’re not moving forward as a city, you’ll fall back. The status quo is a slow death.” Repeat that for emphasis until it sinks in.
It’s a lesson other, once-A-list cities learned too late. Their decline inexorably followed.
That should never come to pass in greater Atlanta. The mere thought would set our leaders of old to turning in their graves. The ones who knew how to shove bold and audacious from word to deed. Author Frederick Allen summed up this attitude in his 1996 book “Atlanta Rising,” where he wrote that “Atlanta emerged as the capital of the New South for a reason, and that reason was a willingness to embrace change.”
In assessing Charlotte’s rise, the AJC’s Michael Kanell referenced a city plan there heartily embraced by doers. Former banking CEO Hugh McColl Jr. noted that a handful of executives there boldly drove plans to reality. Kanell then wrote that “Atlanta once had a similar, small group of men shaping events, but no comparable plan. And as metro Atlanta mushroomed, the elites’ ability to steer things waned.”
That’s pretty much where things stand around here today. The status quo is pretty comfortable, we’ll concede. But only if you’re content to studiously avoid looking toward the horizon and what it portends.
That risk should worry us into doing something about it. Before the future does something bad to us first.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.


Investing in Atlanta’s future pays off

By Doug Hertz
Back in 1968, the year the Woodruff Arts Center first opened its doors, Midtown Atlanta was thought of as a place where only hippies and drug dealers would hang out.
But the visionary business, political and community leadership of almost 50 years ago saw something else. They saw opportunity. They believed that if our city was truly to become a global community, it needed to offer world-class options in several areas including, importantly, the arts.
In the ensuing decades, with the Arts Center as a beacon, Midtown transformed. It became a dynamic, livable community for business, housing, recreation, education and a variety of arts and cultural attractions. Those leaders nearly 50 years ago knew they had to take some chances and invest if Atlanta was to grow. Their investment paid off.
Today, Atlanta is facing a similar, though larger, dilemma: Where and how should we invest to cement Atlanta’s role as a truly global city and the gateway to the South?
Since I’m not an expert in urban planning or development, I won’t pretend to know the complete answer to the question. I’ll just offer what I think is important to businesses, families or tourists considering Atlanta as a potential place to relocate or visit.
We are, indeed, blessed with some world-class answers, particularly those areas where our leaders have invested taxpayer dollars. Our airport is the busiest in the world. We have great academic and research-based institutions that provide a steady stream of young talent. Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Beltline offer green space and recreational opportunities. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is one of the best pediatric health care systems anywhere. We have two professional sports franchises building new stadiums. All these community assets receive some state and/or local taxpayer support.
But in other areas, we fall well short of world class. The challenges with mobility, transportation infrastructure and our schools are well known. Thankfully, these issues are getting focused attention from today’s leaders.
But the arts deserve support and attention as well.
The Woodruff Arts Center has grown into the third-largest arts center in the U.S., and it continues to produce great art at the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum of Art. But opportunities are limited and challenges are very real because the arts are almost entirely dependent on private support.
Today, the state of Georgia ranks 50th — dead last — among all states in support for the arts. Just a small infusion of taxpayer money would make a huge difference in assuring that the arts can continue to thrive, not only at the Woodruff Arts Center but across the entire arts community.
Every great city touts its quality of life  to attract new investment. International investors and visitors, in particular, place a very high premium on the arts in their assessment of quality of life. Like transportation, green space and health care/research, the city and state need to invest in the arts to assure that Atlanta’s quality of life continues to measure up.
A native Atlantan, Doug Hertz is the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Woodruff Arts Center. He is also president and CEO of United Distributors Inc.


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