Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional details, including an interview with the chamber’s incoming CEO.
Atlanta’s business leaders have played different roles in the city’s struggles with racial justice—sometimes partnering behind the scenes, sometimes leading in a more public way, and other times only after some arm-twisting.
Following days of citywide protests of how African Americans are treated by police, the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s new CEO, Katie Kirkpatrick, said business leaders will be closely involved in how the city once again deals with the issue of race.
No arm-twisting will be necessary, she said.
“We have to be at the table and we have to be part of the change,” she said. “We need to hear these voices and really try to understand the policies that will help.”
Kirkpatrick, currently the chamber’s chief policy officer, was named successor on Wednesday to Hala Moddelmog, who’s voluntarily stepping down after a six-year tenure. Kirkpatrick, 46, will be the second woman to lead the organization, which represents business interests and whose members range in size from Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines to Clark Truck Repair and Spiller Park Coffee.
Kirkpatrick didn’t share any specifics about planned chamber actions on race. The group issued a statement last week, saying recent events have been “painful” and that “our differences are our strength.”
The business community’s history with racial issues is a mixed bag. In 1964, business leaders at first refused to attend a dinner honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, although they eventually did come, a decision seen as a turning point in the city’s race relations.
Kirkpatrick said that when the chamber helped save Grady Memorial Hospital, it was another example of how it’s taken a lead role on an issue that touches all races and income levels.
“The chamber has a great history of building coalitions and convening voices together,” she said in an interview. “We pulled a very diverse group of stakeholders together.”
City Councilman Amir Farokhi believes there is a good chance that Atlanta business leaders won’t shy away from racial justice issues in the coming years.
“Two of the biggest challenges we face as a city and a region are how we manage our growth and the other is income inequality and inequity,” Farokhi said. “The Atlanta Chamber has often been willing to engage in issues bigger than profits and losses.”
As for managing growth, Kirkpatrick said she will first address how the region returns to growth after COVID-19 put the Atlanta economy on ice. During a recent discussion with chamber members, Kirkpatrick said they discussed specific ways to juice an “aggressive economic recovery.”
“We’re thinking about levers like tax incentives and regulatory burdens we can remove to allow business to move at a quicker pace,” she said.
Kirkpatrick joined the chamber as vice president of environmental affairs and said the subject remains very important to her. The coronavirus poses a significant challenge to public transit, a significant issue for environmental advocates.
“Yes, COVID-19 has raised awareness of how we think about mass transit,” she said. “We’ve began to reframe how we advocate for transit. It’s about connecting our community to healthcare, education and job centers.”
On the possibility of legalizing casino gambling and sports betting, Kirkpatrick reiterated that the chamber has not taken a public position. The chamber has long backed the HOPE Scholarship, she said, which presumably would benefit from new streams of gaming-related tax revenue.
“We’re paying attention to that issue,” she said.
A graduate of Auburn University, Kirkpatrick’s promotion will take effect Monday. She is married to Dow Kirkpatrick and has two teenage sons who are students at The Lovett School.
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