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Philly, Minneapolis leaders share view of city

October 10, 2008

Maria Saporta, Atlanta Business Chronicle



We can learn so much when we see how others see us.


This time, the people seeing us were two city delegations - one from Philadelphia and another from Minneapolis-St. Paul - that recently came to Atlanta to see how we tackle our problems and to compare and contrast their cities with ours.


The visits are similar to the annual trips that a group of about 110 metro Atlanta leaders take each year to different cities to gain better insights on how to address our challenges.


Both delegations met with a wide number of metro leaders - from Cousins Properties Inc. CEO Tom Bell, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders and others from the government, business and civic communities. For the record, I served on panels for both delegations.


Once they had returned to their respective cities, I asked them to share their impressions of us.


"We were exceptionally impressed with the alignment of the business community and local government," said Minneapolis MayorR.T. Rybak. "I was very impressed with the ability of the business community to engage in some tough issues like the [Grady] hospital and the water system. Those are issues that too many communities are running away from."


Rybak said he's always taken pride in the number of strong companies based in Minneapolis and how they are "disproportionately" involved in the community. But after visiting Atlanta, he said: "I believe we have met our match."


Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, agreed.


"You have strong engagement from the business community, not just financial, but time and influence," Klingel said. "We engage the business community, but we don't take it to the depths that we saw in Atlanta."


Klingel also said he appreciated that Atlantans did not just give a "chamber of commerce" presentation to their guests. The tone of candor in discussing our problems quickly gave the leaders credibility.


For Tammy Mencel, publisher of the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal (a sister publication of Atlanta Business Chronicle), this was her first trip to Atlanta.


She was immediately impressed with the beauty of the trees. But when she took a rental car on the Downtown Connector, she said it felt like there were a thousand lanes.


The three participants that I spoke to from Minneapolis-St. Paul all mentioned Atlanta's traffic, and by witnessing our problems, they said they had greater appreciation for their metro transit systems.


"Because MARTA was one of the early rail transit systems, I had expected Atlanta to have built more on that early success," Mayor Rybak said. "By not having expanded the transit, the consequences are congestion and the related issues of gas." (Both delegations were here during our gas shortage.)


"Atlanta is not a walking and biking city," Klingel observed. "Minneapolis is one of the leading cities in the number of people who bike to work."


Similar sentiments were shared by the folks I spoke to from Philadelphia.


"We came back appreciating some things, the fact that we have a comprehensive mass transit system that serves our region," saidSteven Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, which organized the visit. "The options we have for transportation are important and vital in a changing economy."


Wray said several members worried about Atlanta's future. "A big question we came back with from Atlanta was how will you handle a major energy shock, even more significant than what is going on now."


Bill Marrazzo, president and CEO of the WHYY public television and radio station and a co-chair of the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, said he was struck by how open Atlantans were in talking about race relations.


"That's different from Philly," he said. But he added that while Atlantans seem much more aware of their differences, he wasn't clear whether that resulted in more cooperation among groups or better results.


Sharmain Matlock-Turner, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and another co-chair of the leadership exchange, was most impressed with how the Atlanta Housing Authority has transformed its public housing communities. "All of us had our mouths open," she said.


And she also appreciated the fact that Philadelphia has a multimodal transportation system, and she mentioned that the state of Pennsylvania has just approved a predictable funding source for public transit.

Both cities said they could relate to the difficulties metro Atlanta has in getting support from the state government. But the disconnect seemed more extreme in Atlanta, according to some.


"You have an optimism and ‘can-do' spirit; you say, ‘We will figure it out,' " Wray said. "The approach is different from the Northeast. You do not have a lot of faith in government solving the problem, so the private sector leads or establishes public-private partnerships. In Atlanta, the business and civic community tend to lead government. Up here, I think we look to government first to solve problems."


The groups also mentioned how much progress the Atlanta Public Schools has made in K-12 education; they noticed Georgia State University's impact on downtown; and they envied the "Atlanta Way" of joining together to promote the city, such as winning the 1996 Summer Olympics.


"I want to know how we can add a little bit of that ‘can-do' attitude to our grit," Wray said.


On his part, Minneapolis Mayor Rybak is looking forward to returning the hospitality in the spring. Metro Atlanta leaders are planning to visit the Minneapolis-St. Paul region on their 13th annual LINK trip.^1714810&surround=etf