Baby steps to regionalism

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” — Lao Tzu

The gumption to take that first step is more difficult to muster than the patience and stamina needed to complete the journey. Such is the case with regionalism.

With scarcity of public resources, interjurisdictional cooperation is increasingly essential to a competitive and prosperous region. Regional collaboration is also central to the utility and effectiveness of government. More bluntly, the very relevance of local government as a collective-service delivery mechanism withers where balkanization continues without structural regionalism.

Recently, regional partnerships have surfaced. But there are miles to go and promises to keep. Setting aside the grandeur and appeal of big and lofty ideas, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s annual LINK trip to Philadelphia in May taught me a subtlety: Our journey to regionalism may begin with a few simple steps.

In Philadelphia, we engaged our counterparts in government, business, academia and civic leadership to learn about their successes and challenges as a region. While the format of this 18th annual expedition was typical, this year’s experience was markedly different.

First, former Governor and Mayor Ed Rendell, in addressing our group, offered an honest perspective on regional collaboration. Having served both as a mayor who dealt directly with regional politics and as a governor who arguably sat removed from regional concerns, his insight was credible and instructive. He urged us to pursue functional integration of strategy, planning and implementation — a difficult task when parochialism and personality trump practicality and vision.

Second, the ARC team allowed interactive feedback after most sessions. These sessions explored the good, the bad and the ugly in metro Atlanta. Our dialogue covered lessons learned, existing initiatives and ideas.

One lesson learned regarding T-SPLOST was that regionalism cannot be top-down. A groundswell of support is critical. We also learned that a path to regional transit has begun with one profound, yet incomprehensibly simple step — a unified website providing route information from every agency. The brainchild of a committee formed by state Sen. Brandon Beach, this step may become a stride with the creation of a unified fare system.

The most unexpected development came from Jim Rhoden of Cobb County. After touring the art mural program in inner-city Philadelphia, he proposed this concept as an initiative to galvanize and unify our region. The idea got more than praise; he raised $75,000 on the spot. Amazing that art in Philadelphia could spark such a profound step toward collaboration.

These simple notions can be key to tangible regionalism. We first must courageously believe baby steps are OK if we keep moving, and that immediate gratification is neither necessary nor reasonable. Our singular, but steady steps toward regionalism may be felt by the next generation. Big things of legacy usually have small beginnings. And regionalism is a big thing.

Onward and upward Atlanta!

Ceasar C. Mitchell is president of the Atlanta City Council.

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