The leader of Metro Atlanta’s top planning organization on Thursday, Oct. 24, told a group of Baby Boomers that the region is changing and the way people think about problems needs to change, too.
Douglas Hooker, Executive Director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, was the guest at the Buckhead Business Association’s weekly breakfast.
Hooker, a member of the Baby Boomer generation, said that generation’s children – the Echo Boomers – have different priorities than their parents.
“Part of what attracts them are having the kinds of amenities and lifestyle close to where they live and where they work, having a ‘cool’ factor,” Hooker said. “We’re less likely to move some place because it’s cool.”
Hooker’s talk tied in to a recently-released study by George Washington University about the metro areas WalkUps, shorthand for “walkable urban places.” Hooker said it’s essentially a new spin on the “live, work, play” concept.
The study found that since 2009, 60 percent of real estate investment in the metro area occurred in “WalkUPs.” Generally the development in these areas is denser, a reversal of the suburban sprawl trend that defined Atlanta for decades.
“Millennials, by and large, the trend is they’ll find the places they’d like to live,” Hooker said. “A lot of them, especially the educated ones, work in the fields where their talent is very portable. … They are tending to go to the places that are ‘cool’ communities and employers are following them.”
The influx of new talent creates a lopsided statistic, however. Though public schools in the metro area have a disappointing graduation rate – the city of Atlanta is 52 percent – the metro area has one of the highest rates of educational attainment in the U.S. Hooker said 35 percent of residents here have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Hooker said if the region continues to import educated workers and neglect growing talent locally, it will have far-reaching implications.
“We’re creating a permanent underclass, a permanent group of people who have very little or no prospects for upward mobility,” Hooker said.
Hooker also talked about a lack of mobility created by the area’s chronically underfunded transportation infrastructure. Unless the U.S. Congress can resolve its differences, the region will receive zero federal funding in Fiscal 2015, Hooker said.
Transportation planners tried to convince metro residents that a penny sales tax was the way to pay for new road projects in the area. The voters weren’t convinced. The sales tax referendum failed in spectacular fashion in 2012, with 63 percent of voters the 10-county metro region saying “no.”
Hooker said the defeat still stings a little. He said after the defeat, he stopped discussing transportation in public meetings. He said it’s time to resume the conversation.
“I’m back to talking about it now,” Hooker said. “This is something we will have to pay attention to and figure out how to do it. I always said to people before the vote, it’s not like we won’t have money but the level of money we’ll have relative to the level of need we’ll have is not a lot.”
The metro area receives $2.5 billion a year for highway funding, but most of that goes to maintenance leaving less than $1 billion for new projects, Hooker said.
“Our transportation funding doesn’t keep up with our growth,” he said.