Civic Engagement Success

We revisit Atlanta’s efforts to include its low-income residents in a major capitol redevelopment project.

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After spending most of my four decades in public service in Chattanooga -- including two terms as mayor -- I've made it no secret that Atlanta is my first love as a city. In fact, I wrote a piece underscoring that very point when Atlanta was selected to participate in the second cohort of City Accelerator.

It's a city that has a history of dealing squarely and honestly with the issues it faces. Rising from the ashes of the Civil War and becoming "a city too busy to hate" during the Civil Rights Movement, for more than a century Atlanta has exhibited many of the desirable qualities that build a foundation for lasting success and, in most respects, has served as a good example for cities worldwide.

But to shamelessly borrow and badly paraphrase a line from Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps the greatest thing "to fear from Atlanta's success is success itself." It's also no secret that Atlanta has been overwhelmed by growth and development.

Like many other major cities, Atlanta has a continuing issue with accommodations for professional sports teams. It doesn't seem all that long ago that the Braves moved to town from Milwaukee and the Falcons began as an $8.5 million expansion team created specifically to fulfill the community's hopes and dreams to play in the major leagues. In fact, it all took place from 1964 to 1966.

Originally, the exciting new Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium near downtown served both teams. It opened in April 1965 and was among the first of the circular stadiums designed to serve both baseball and football. It was a design that became somewhat ubiquitous in cities across America, but the limitations of a multipurpose facility soon became apparent. I won't attempt to go into all the details, but over the years I've lost count of the numerous plans for new facilities and the actual replacements for major stadiums that have been a subject of continuous debate and discussion -- up to and including infrastructure for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. 

A more recent debate involved moving the Braves to a suburban county location outside central Atlanta and the intense civic engagement efforts aimed at retaining the Falcons in or near downtown. That major urban development issue set the stage for Atlanta's participation in City Accelerator. There is an excellent and detailed summary in the article "A tale of two Atlanta stadiums: Political fortunes rise, fall in deals" posted August 13, 2016, by Meris Lutz and J. Scott Trubey of the Atlanta Journal Constitution

In the article, current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is quoted as telling the paper's editorial board in February 2013 that the city would have "a big public conversation" on the subject. 

Is that not the very definition of civic engagement?

Although that may be what was intended, it's not exactly what happened. It seems that from the outset, people in the neighborhoods affected by the stadium discerned that the eventual outcome was most likely preordained. Accordingly, they might not have approached the civic engagement effort with a sense of trust that they could make a real difference. The sensitivity of the situation is described in a March 15, 2017, account by Houston Barber published by Huffington Post.

The article summarizes the situation in simple terms: 

"The decision to build a new NFL stadium in Atlanta was not without controversy. The former Georgia Dome was built in 1992 and was only 18 years old when plans were announced for its replacement. ... To truly understand what this stadium is, you have to understand its surroundings. Mercedes-Benz Stadium sits on the edge of Atlanta’s Westside, a fraught neighborhood that has seen the raw end of real estate deals in the past."

The difficulties of shoehorning a major stadium into a historic neighborhood that includes the childhood home of Martin Luther King Jr. and many other iconic structures associated with the Civil Rights Movement are further detailed in a piece in the New York Times. The article illustrates the complexity of a project that contains elements of public versus private interests and, in this case, also involves a significant third player: major philanthropic investor Arthur Blanks, a successful entrepreneur and one of the originators of Home Depot. 

An update on the project published on the City Accelerator site attempts to gather and present the increasingly complex details in a more understandable fashion, and explain why Atlanta's participation in cohort two was necessary and appropriate:

"When a major capital redevelopment project impacts a low-income community, local governments should work to include residents’ voices in shaping that redevelopment as much as possible. As in cities across the country where new stadium or arena projects are designed to drive investment into communities, the City of Atlanta’s efforts to engage the community in shaping these investments were seen as lacking by many. The Atlanta City Accelerator project sought to repair relationships with residents by engaging them in the conversations about how the city could address their concerns and mitigate any negative impacts from increased commercial and sports-related traffic in their neighborhood. By being open to feedback and fostering transparency, cities can rebuild trust among the residents by ensuring they benefit from the intended improvements to their neighborhoods."

As the affected neighborhoods came back to the negotiating table and a more productive spirit of communication emerged, a broader partnership was fashioned including representatives of Atlanta's City Accelerator team, the Westside Future Fund, the Atlanta Housing Authority and the Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition to holding more public hearings and other civic interactions, the partnership published an important document, the Atlanta Community Engagement Playbook. A number of community projects and programs were also agreed upon, provided or promised.

So where does the stadium project stand today? An even more recent article in USA Today reports that the huge new facility is scheduled to open in August.

Just as the new stadium opens its doors, Atlanta will be moving into a critical election season to select the city's next mayor and city council. Current Mayor Kasim Reed is term limited. The qualifying deadline to be on the ballot for the election is August 25, 2017, and the general election is scheduled for November 7.

The changes don’t seem to end there. While the long, painful civic engagement effort and billion-dollar development project that will culminate in the construction of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is wrapping up, the dark shadow of a federal investigation related to procurement fraud is slowly unfolding across the city.

So far, the stadium project does not appear to be implicated, but the involvement of key appointed and elected officials in spending the public's money does tend to illustrate how quickly such things can get out of hand. Atlanta has long been regarded as a city that has successfully used the power of procurement and the careful and appropriate distribution of city contracts as a strategy to build and undergird a more robust economic middle class within the minority community. How all of this affects the upcoming election and the overall reputation of the city itself remains to be seen.

All this provides a cautionary tale as the new group of cities join the City Accelerator initiative to explore the intersection of procurement and low-income residents.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.