Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin: focus on communities that have “hardest time breaking through”

Shirley Franklin has largely kept a low profile and stayed out of the headlines since she left the corner office at Atlanta City Hall almost three years ago.

But that doesn’t mean she’s taking all her time off. The two-term mayor sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the sidelines of a conference in Atlanta this week to talk about the city’s finances, sewers and chances at urban renewal.

Franklin is a Philadelphia native who became Atlanta’s first female mayor, and the first black women elected mayor of a major southern city. After her onetime campaign manager, Kasim Reed, was elected mayor in 2009, Franklin went on to campaign for Democrat Roy Barnes in Georgia’s 2010 gubernatorial election.

If Franklin, 67, does less public politicking these days, she remains free with her opinions. She believes that Atlanta deserves a larger share of sales tax revenue from Georgia. She stresses that the city should not get complacent about maintaining its sewers. And she is hopeful that pockets of concentrated poverty can be fixed.

Q: You live in Atlanta full-time. What have you been up to recently?

A: Well, I’m on two corporate boards: Delta Air Lines and Mueller Water Products. I’ve spoken at most of the colleges and universities across Georgia. A lot of them, anyway. Clayton State University has a program for nurse practitioners, where they bring them back to get an advanced degree. Since nursing is still very heavily women, they’ve asked me to come and participate about two days each semester and talk about the issues of leadership. That’s a way for me to be engaged. Last semester I did some co-teaching at Spelman. I do things like that.

Q: You are CEO and chair of a nonprofit called Purpose Built Communities, which has been involved in coordinating mixed-income housing and early childhood education in East Lake. Can the success in that neighborhood happen elsewhere?

A: I’ve been fascinated by this issue of, how do you break through the cultural and economic barriers that some people face in America. How do you create not just a great place to look at, but a great place to live? How do you raise the quality of life for all the people, especially for folks who have been locked out of the economic mainstream?

We think it’s replicable (in other cities) because it’s a fairly basic approach. Business and civic leaders decide they want to invest in a particular neighborhood, in communities where people don’t feel safe before the sun rises — or after the sun rises. There are plenty of communities like that. You narrow your focus on the part of the community that has the hardest time breaking through.

Q: But tearing down big housing projects doesn’t always work, does it? Bankhead is still struggling.

A: The answer in East Lake is that one piece is not enough. You’ve got to have a good school. You’ve got to have a safe city. You’ve got to rebuild in a comprehensive or holistic way. Once you have mixed-income housing, you’ve changed the dynamic because now you’ve got people with disposable income. You’ve also got to have services for people with limited means. So, you include after-school and teen and summer programs.

When I moved to Atlanta in 1972, East Lake was a place where police officers and the fire department didn’t want to go. It was as bad as anything you’d ever seen.

Q: A federal judge recently gave Atlanta a 13-year extension to finish mandatory sewer upgrades. He said the city made remarkable progress, partly under your leadership. Does it bother you if people forget what a big job that was?

A: My job was to meet the standards in the [federal] consent decree, and part of that was to do it on time. I guess my key job was to persuade people that we really could do it, and then, that we could pay for it. To me, as a former official, it really doesn’t matter whether people remember. The most important thing is that we got the work done and that it’s the kind of infrastructure that will last 40 or 50 years. It is important to me, however, that people realize that you have to take care of water infrastructure — that you can’t just ignore sewers.

Frankly, we need to do some more work on stormwater and drinking water. I can talk all day and all night about water.

Q: Do you chat with Mayor Reed these days?

A: No, not very much. He’s busy and I try to stay in my lane. He’ll call if he has anything he wants to talk about.