By John Schaffner
Mayor Shirley Franklin told a packed house at the Atlanta Rotary Club last month that politicians and civic and business leaders need to focus on the strategic positioning of the city in the Southeast as the nation moves toward 10 or 11 megaregions, ensuring Atlanta’s position as a leader in the four-state region.
Her speech March 23 at the Loudermilk Center downtown largely ignored the city’s financial crisis. The mayor instead asked, “What investments are we making today that will have coattails 30 to 40 years from now?”
Franklin assured the mostly friendly business crowd that 70 percent of the population increase projected for Atlanta’s Piedmont Atlantic region “is coming whether we are ready or not.” She said that region stretches from Raleigh and Charlotte to Chattanooga and Birmingham and even to Jacksonville, Fla.
According to Franklin, projections have two-thirds of Americans living in one of the urban megaregions and making an even bigger economic contribution by 2040.
Atlanta is an international crossroad for people and goods.
“We are home to 49 foreign consulates, 31 foreign-American chambers of commerce, and 15 trade and tourism offices. If it were a country, metro Atlanta would be 28th among the largest economies in the world,” the mayor said.
She said the Piedmont Atlantic Region has 15 million jobs and serves 34 million people. By 2050, that megaregion is expected to grow by 23 million people.
“You might ask what does that have to do with the city of Atlanta. I say it has everything to do with the city of Atlanta,” Franklin said.
“The real question is how do we fit into the megaregion that is coming, whether we like it or not,” she said. “The whole question is not what we are doing within our city, but what we are doing among and between our cities.”
Franklin, in the final year of her second four-year term as mayor, noted that she was making her last annual address to the Rotary Club, “so I get to say where I think the future should go.”
“I often put fear and hope on the same list because I think we are often motivated by either one or the other, and the pole at any moment moves back and forth,” she said. “If we have a system that is organized the way it is today, in 30 years we will have an economy that is either flat or dying. It seems to me we need to look to a new government structure.”
She said her favorite structure would include everything inside I-285 under one government, an entity the size of Jacksonville. “It would mean … being able to use the economic power of our region, our city or our county, whatever it would be, to address some of the issues.”
She said eventually an integrated multimodal transportation system must serve all of metro Atlanta and connect to similar systems across the megaregion.
Among other issues that must be addressed, Franklin cited land use, sustainability and green infrastructure. “Green is owned either by the federal government or it is in private hands.”
Clean water is another of those issues, she said. “You have a water plan that is not just a statewide plan, but a regional plan.”
She also cited education, whose funding burden falls increasingly on the city.
“Atlanta needs to decide who it is,” she said. “What values do we hold today, who we have been, who we are and who we want to be? How will we handle diversity? How do we ensure a competitive advantage 40 years from now?”
In response to a question about the budget crisis at the end of her yearly talk to the Rotarians, Franklin said: “I believe we will end the year on June 30 in the black.”