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Contingent will strive to put Atlanta-trip lessons to work

October 3, 2008

Athena D. Merritt, Philadelphia Business Journal


Prior to last week, the 100-plus participants in the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange probably would have been hard pressed to explain just what the "Atlanta Way" meant.


After two-and-a-half days of panel discussions with leaders in Atlanta, they have returned home with not only a better understanding of what makes the southern city tick, but what makes Philadelphia unique in its own right.


Spearheaded by the Economy League of Philadelphia, the initiative is aimed at finding best practices of other cities that Philadelphia can use to become a world-class city. Participants went looking for insight on everything from growing jobs and the economy to education and minority businesses. Atlanta officials gave them a peek into all aspects of the workings of their city and region - the good and the bad - leaving no subject taboo, to the surprise of many.


"I was really struck by the honesty and forthrightness of the comments that the panelists made in talking about the races," said Ernest Jones, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corporation. "There are differences. However, they are willing to put those differences aside to work for the better good of Atlanta."


Jones hopes to facilitate that type of honest dialogue in Philadelphia in the future working with William Marrazzo, president and CEO of WHYY, who served as one of the co-chairs for the exchange.


Panelists heralded Atlanta as one of the fastest-growing metropolitan regions in the country since 2000, a place where leaders believe anything is possible and the private sector takes a leadership role, such as in attracting the 1996 Olympics, which was done with no public funding.


"Here we sort of do it in reverse, we have a very strong public sector and we are always looking to bring the private sector into the fold, into the action," said Stephen Curtis, president of the Community College of Philadelphia.


Panelists also spoke of a city that is home to the worst traffic congestion in the nation, a struggling school system, a dwindling water supply and has a strained relationship with its own state. But don't expect to find a city that is down on itself.


"Probably the one thing I walked away with is the kind of ‘can-do' spirit that was exhibited in Atlanta, that we have to kind of fight for in Philadelphia," David Brown, president and founder of BrownPartners, a Philadelphia marketing firm, said.


"The thing that distinguishes Atlanta from Philadelphia is their optimism and they see a cup as half full," agreed George Burrell, executive vice president and general counsel at PRWT Services. "Their belief that they are a great city, their belief that they are going to continue to grow."


Philadelphia should also take note of Atlanta's investment in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which has become an economic engine for the city and region generating $23 billion and supporting 390,000 direct and indirect jobs, participants said.


"I think I came away even more committed to the belief that we need to make Philadelphia International Airport the best front door to our region that we can," said Thomas Morr, president and CEO of Select Greater Philadelphia.


Many also left with a greater appreciation of Philadelphia's own assets.


"I think we have some riches that Atlanta doesn't begin to have, such as that authentic small business," said Patricia Blakely, executive director of the Merchants Fund, which provides small business grants. "I never saw the kind of corner, small scale kind of businesses that are the backbone of Philadelphia."

Philadelphia's public transportation system and its walkability are also better than Atlanta's, Center City District President and CEO Paul Levy noted.


A total of 103 leaders from the region's public, private and nonprofit sector participated in the exchange, which is the second of the Economy League, which first led 70-plus leaders to Chicago in 2005.^1710775