In the 60s, Atlanta was the home of the Civil Rights Movement; in the 70s it was the place to be in the South; it was the home of Jazz, then, by the 80s, the heart of Southern Hip Hop. Now Atlanta is home to a burgeoning tech and health-tech industry, contains the world headquarters of corporations such as Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, Delta Airlines and Turner Broadcasting, has the busiest airport in the world, and provides the backdrop for more zombie flicks than Hollywood. On top of that, Atlanta now ranks the ninth best city for graduates in the USA, making for a young, educated demographic who can afford to flourish there.
A city can be many things in a short time, and ATL certainly embodies that. A role model for the progressive American South, Atlanta is wasting no time in showcasing its blossoming liveability credentials with a newly-launched movement, ChooseATL, which combines the expertise and excitement of a team lead by Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Hala Moddelmog and social impact pro Kate Atwood. Launching their campaign in Austin, Texas, during South By South West 2016, ChooseATL has made clear what kind of demographic they’re trying to woo. Atlanta remains one of the most affordable real estate markets, and its geographical position and historical logistics and transport infrastructure makes it one of the most connected cities in the US: both perfect selling points for mobile millennials.
Meanwhile, its business landscape continues to grow and diversify and for that kind of development to be sustainable, the city needs a healthy stream of talent. “Atlanta is still developing. We’re still living off our legacies – the Civil Rights Movement, the invention of Coca-Cola, the establishment of CNN, even Gone With the Wind! People are inspired by these huge stories but there’s still plenty of room for growth. Other cities are fully-baked. Atlanta is kind of a teenager. Creative and innovative young people are able to make their mark here,” explains Hala Moddelmog on the impetus behind the campaign. “When we look at Atlanta’s recent history, we have an incredible story, and we’re focusing on telling that.”
An incredible story indeed, Atlanta’s recent developments are evident everywhere you turn; both in the infrastructural sense and in the spirit of the city. In 1980, CNN was established in Atlanta, marking the beginning of its positioning as a media destination, underlined by tax incentives for film and television. In 1996, Atlanta won the bid to host the Summer Olympics which was the first and only time Olympic Games were held in the Southern United States. The Olympics had an estimated economic impact on the city of at least $5.14 billion. In the process, Atlanta changed physically, as new sports venues were built, green public space was created, sidewalks and streets were improved, and housing patterns were altered. Meanwhile, the birthplace of Coca-Cola quickly became home to more than 10 Fortune 500 Companies. “Are we still recruiting companies? Of course. But we’re focusing on attracting incredible talent – and that’s a lot more fun!” says Moddelmog on the new wave of development.
One thing Atlanta doesn’t lack is visionary leadership, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Mayors like Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson and, currently, Kasim Reed, who saw a future for Atlanta beyond being a logistics and transport center. They helped Atlanta soar to its potential of being a global city, an IT hub, and a major trendsetter of culture, music and arts in the South. “The sheer volume of major projects we have occurring at one time is really propelling Atlanta forward,” Mayor Kasim Reed tells us during the ChooseATL launch at SXSW. “Everything from a $6 billion capital development program at the airport and the redevelopment of Ponce City Market, to the Phillips Arena which will end up anchoring a 3,000-5,000 unit housing development and the Mercedes Benz stadium which we put in a challenged, deprived neighborhood. The companies now calling Atlanta home wouldn’t have, if the city hadn’t taken decisive action.”
But the city is not working alone. “One of the unique things about Atlanta is how the business sector, the government and academia all work together, hand-in-hand,” says Michael Cassidy of the Georgia Research Alliance, alluding to a tangible hometown pride that is felt around the city. “We’re making sure that everyone can be involved and inviting them to the table,” confirms Mayor Reed.
One initiative that serves as a great example is the now-iconic Atlanta BeltLine project. In 1999, the BeltLine was just an idea proposed by Ryan Gravel, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, whose thesis was on linking multiple city neighborhoods with a new transit system along the old unused rail corridors that circle the city. The idea generated a lot of interest and gained citizen support and was later adopted by the City Council, who would then transform the old railroad corridors with light-rail transit, parks and multi-use trails to generate economic growth and protect quality of life, while bringing together a city suffering from urban sprawl. “The Atlanta BeltLine really does link the entire city – 45 neighborhoods. It’s made the city much more walkable than it’s ever been,” says Mayor Reed. In addition to the grassroots support, many organizations quickly saw the benefits a project like this could bring: a group of more than 30 public, private, non-profit and community groups created the Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative (ALTC) to maintain affordability in neighborhoods at risk of displacement due to the added interest the BeltLine has brought to their areas. “We’re trying to ensure that development doesn’t just mean gentrification,” affirms Mayor Reed. “We’re making sure Atlanta remains a powerful voice for inclusion.”
It’s a notion which lays at the heart of the BeltLine’s mission: “the BeltLine now brings people together rather than separating them,” tells us John Somerhalder, Chairman of the Atlanta BeltLine Inc., referring to how, in the near past, the very same rail corridors used to separate low-income communities from higher income communities; safe neighborhoods from dangerous neighborhoods. “The BeltLine has received over three million visitors in the last year – and that’s huge when you consider that the population of the city is just over half a million. So we’re seeing that it’s not just affecting the inner-core of the city, but it’s having a regional ripple,” explains BeltLine Inc.’s Ericka B.Davis, Communications and Media Relations Director.
Today, a walk around the BeltLine shows the diversity of the city, as Atlantans from all walks of life congregate for brunch, yoga and cycling, among a wealth of other activities. The social and health impact of the BeltLine has already started to show, even though the project is not fully complete yet. It has been described as the “21st century prototype for creating healthy cities,” by Catherine Ross, Director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Institute of Technology, who has completed a landmark health impact assessment on the BeltLine. “It really has changed how we think about urban revitalization. Typically, we wouldn’t link health with the urban-redevelopment process. That’s new,” says Ross.
This measurable impact feeds into Atlanta’s burgeoning health and health-tech industries which are flourishing thanks to the city’s strong academic output from the likes of Emory, Georgia State and Morehouse School of Medicine, alongside Georgia Tech. “It became clear to Atlanta, during the high tech boom in the mid-80s, that technology would be a huge part of economic development and that the big driver of that would be our research universities,” recalls Michael Cassidy. “The Georgia Research Alliance was born out of the initiative to bring these sectors together and a lot of the infrastructure we’ve been working on since the late 90s is now becoming appreciated. Now, we see the density of millennial talent hovering around Georgia Tech. We see incubators and accelerators around and adjacent to campuses. Atlanta is in really good shape moving forward.”
Meanwhile, the media industry continues to drive development. Georgia now ranks as the third biggest filming location in the USA, after Los Angeles and New York. This multi-billion dollar industry is stimulated by decisive action: the city has invested heavily in infrastructure and in human capital to provide the necessary talent for media production, and provided incentives like 20% tax credit for productions that spend $500,000 and 10% tax credit for including a Georgia logo in the credits. Atlanta’s landscape is also a huge enabler: the city can be filmed as a glistening, modern metropolis or a quaint village, all within a 10 minute drive of one another. Taking advantage of the incentives and putting Atlanta on the map are blockbuster movies like The Blind Side (2009), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), Fast and Furious 7 (2015) as well as hit zombie movies and TV shows like Zombieland (2009), The Walking Dead (2010), and, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012), which have earned the city the moniker of Zombie Capital of the World. “Atlanta is turning into a very progressive city. We’re having our cake and eating it too,” tells us Chris Hicks, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment, just weeks into his appointment to the role.
Despite its rapid growth – or perhaps because of it – Atlanta is not without its problems. With 25% of its population below the poverty line, the city has a long way to go in terms of wealth distribution. “We’re trying to make sure the opportunities for entrepreneurship here are inclusive as possible. The reality is that people living in low income circumstances don’t have the support and infrastructure around them to kick-start their own businesses. So we work as hard as possible to offer them resources that can put them on an equal footing with someone whose dad gave them a million dollars,” explains Dr. Eloisa Klementich, President and CEO of Invest Atlanta.
One such resource is the recently-launched Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI) which has selected 15 Atlantan women of all backgrounds to participate in their first round, and encourages them to keep their businesses headquartered in the city. With an all-female powerhouse advisory board, the WEI empowers women entrepreneurs with office space, mentorship and the technology resources to bring their ideas to life during a 15-month incubation. “We’re also in the process of creating an Emerging Markets Equity Fund which will be awarded to the WEI graduates who show commitment to being good stewards and ambassadors for small business ownership in the community, keeping their business in Atlanta, and creating local job opportunities. We’re really looking at fostering the businesses that are willing to hire, particularly in parts of the city where unemployment is high,” explains Theia Washington Smith, Executive Director at WEI. Given the city’s commitment to supporting entrepreneurship and making the resources equally accessible to all, it comes as no surprise that, at SXSW, DigitalunDivided’s BIG Innovation Center announced that it has chosen Atlanta as its home for accelerating tech companies led by black and Latina women.
Integrating the needs and desires of the various stakeholders in the city is undoubtedly proving healthy for Atlanta and achieving real results. Putting the Georgian jewel on the map for capital and talent alike is the cooperative nature of urban development that doesn’t take away from the competitiveness necessary to fuel innovation and development. When asked about the future of Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed stated that “we want to be a better version of ourselves,” and, over the last 30 years, it’s this very commitment to preserving and working with local culture, rather than imitating others, that’s driving the city’s positive transformation.
The #CreativeCitiesUSA Atlanta editorial project was made possible with the support of:
ChooseATL Photography by Breezy Ritter for progrss.com