Metro Atlanta's 'second act': To hit new heights, first fix foundation

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's Opinion: The region's itching for its next big idea. But success will be easier to support from a solid base — sufficient water, sewerage and transportation.

The Atlanta region stumbled hard as we ran full-on into the headwinds of a mighty recession.

The nation and most of the world struggled along with us. These days, we’re all grateful that the spreadsheet-readers say the recession is officially over.

Now it’s time to go back to behaving like Atlanta as the economy slowly regains vigor. We can best do that by reaching deeper into our time-proven toolkit for success and applying it anew toward the challenges and opportunities that will surface, or resurface, as things get going again.

This assessment came to mind after Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed recently caused metro area ears to perk up by noting in an interview that, “We’re not really rooting for ourselves anymore.” That message might have alarmed some, but that was not really the intent of this tireless civic booster.

Reed made a valid point, we believe. His was a call to move on from the significant pain of the recent past and begin brewing afresh the magic formula that moved Atlanta forward across past decades. Our big ideas backed by equally large actions zoomed us past other cities that couldn’t match the team and results fielded by this great metro area. With updating, we can do that again.

During his talk before the Atlanta Press Club, Reed said the region needed a second act. That’s in keeping with our pattern of incubating a leading-edge idea, hammering it into reality and then reaping the benefits. Atlanta invested in an airport when most of America still traveled by train. That foresight resulted in the world’s-busiest airport that fuels Atlanta commerce today. The city’s political and business class sat down with civil rights leaders while Birmingham chose confrontation backed by police dogs and fire hoses. The end result was what the late Dan Sweat called black plus white equaling green in Atlanta. There were many other ambitious wins — sports teams, MARTA and the Olympics stand large among them.

That was then. What shall be our future? What tactics that worked for us in the past can we employ going forward? That is the billions-of-dollars question for the Atlanta metro and for Georgia.

In our view, the slowdown — and the likely slow recovery — gives us time to check and strengthen the region’s foundation. It’s well-known that the Atlanta region is built on solid rock that lies not far under our trademark red clay. Knowing that helps in understanding where we are now.

Atlanta has the enviable problem of having outrun much of its infrastructure. We built and expanded so fast that our transportation systems and even our sewers and water supply could not keep up. Reinforcing our underpinnings in the short-term will speed our longer-term recovery.

That means maintaining without delay the march forward on matters such as achieving a multifaceted solution to our water supply problem. We also cannot be drawn into the weeds as the region plans for a 2012 vote on a transportation sales tax.

In a post-recession world and economy, we can only win if we are united as both a region and state. Our smartest competitors now investing toward their future success recognize this, and have started aligning various political entities around common goals.

For those who have trouble seeing the big picture that lies beyond their city and county limit, please think about it this way. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Creating them will require a transportation system that lets people get to workplaces and lets employers efficiently move both goods and workers around the region and state. Given the number of metro Atlantans who work in one county and live in another, boosting mobility is a non-negotiable point in our survival playbook.

While we’ve got work to do in overcoming mistrust and coalescing as a region, it has been a pleasant surprise to see our elected officials acting more in the interests of One Georgia.

Kasim Reed has put his Gold Dome contacts to good use, pleading Atlanta’s cause before his former legislative colleagues. That’s led to some reciprocity by the Legislature, which will benefit us all.

It was good statesmanship that led House Speaker David Ralston to invite members of the new Regional Transportation Roundtable into his office last month and, in so many words, tell them not to emerge until they’d agreed to put Reed on the roundtable’s executive committee, which should have happened in the first place.

Ralston’s inclusive thinking and action helped smooth the process toward creating a transportation project list that will hopefully make sense to voters who’ll be asked in 2012 to tax themselves to pay for the work.

Reed has repaid the favor by lobbying in Washington for federal money to deepen Savannah’s port, a key competitive engine for Georgia. Speeding entry of imported goods and departure of goods produced in Georgia and elsewhere in the U.S. will hasten our economic recovery. It’s not exaggeration for Reed to note that Savannah’s harbor and the zooming Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport are two of the largest boosters of Georgia’s economy.

It may seem un-Atlantan to devote a lot of attention and money toward shoring up our bases as opposed to swinging boldly for the fences. Taking time to do the first thing well will make achieving the second a lot easier.

If we do that, grasping the next big thing will be the easy part, given the energy and intellect found among our young, well-educated work force. We’ve just got to give them something to work with. In this case, that’s a better foundation built upon the basics that have served us so well.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

Atlanta Forward: We look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers.

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