Lain Shakespeare looks out a window over the Atlanta Beltline, sharing the vision for the light rail line organizers hope will eventually run parallel to a trail that already has arguably transformed the way the city sees itself.
“Projects like this are really redefining the way people view this city and increasing the demand for this kind of office space,” Mr. Shakespeare, corporate citizenship director for email service provider MailChimp, tells a group of city officials from around the world.
He says nearly 40 percent of MailChimp’s employees walk or bike to work, mostly along the Beltline. That number might be small compared to some cities, but for Atlanta, it’s enormous. In announcing a new bike-sharing program last year, the mayor’s office set a goal of doubling the share of bicycle commuters to just 2.2 percent in a city known for a love of cars and insufficient public transit.
But Atlanta is also a city that’s changing rapidly, and it’s trying to tell that story of that transformation to the world, increasingly through the medium of exchanges with like-minded urban centers.
Mr. Shakespeare led a comprehensive tour of the type of bona fide tech space that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the Atlanta of old: an open-plan Ponce City Market office with an executive “row” (not a closed-off suite), eclectic decor, exposed brick and even a swag shop with airbrush t-shirts and stuffed likenesses of Freddie, the company’s lovable chimpanzee mascot.
Joining the tour were representatives of cities participating in the inaugural Atlanta International Economic Development Summit, a two-day forum that attracted representatives from 12 partner cities like Cape Town, Paris, London and sister cities like Nuremberg, Germany, and Ra’anana, Israel. The goal was to discuss how cities can better work together to spur investment.
“We are doing some great sector-oriented relationships — fintech with London and smart cities with Barcelona — so we wanted to share that with the whole network and say, ‘How can we scale that?’” said Claire Angelle, director of the mayor’s Office of International Affairs.
The event culminated with the launch of City 2 City, a private online platform where networked cities can exchange leads on investment, trade missions and more. It’s backed by research and assistance from the Brookings Institution’s Global Cities Initiative, of which Atlanta has been a core participant for about five years.
“All of this means increased opportunities for us all, and more job opportunities that are better-paying for the future,” Mayor Kasim Reed said a reception opening the summit Wednesday night.
Enjoyed my time welcoming 12 international cities to the inaugural Atlanta International Business Development Summit. Thanks for having me. pic.twitter.com/mBPCKtdoHI
— Kasim Reed (@KasimReed) September 7, 2017
Aside from closed-door discussions, the two-day summit included visits to Tyler Perry Studios, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Atlanta Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and other places like Ponce City Market, the mixed-use development on the Beltline that has served as a magnet for established tech firms and startups.
Julie Bryant Fisher, chief experience officer for the Technology Association of Georgia, met the group there to tell the story of an innovation ecosystem that embraces the new while keeping a foot in what some might see as the stodgy sectors of the past.
One of Atlanta’s strengths is payments, more broadly financial technology, the relatively unsexy industry that in the past has only been noticed when it failed (as in this week’s data breach of Atlanta-based Equifax). Now, fintech is Atlanta’s international calling card, tied in closely with its other strong sectors: cybersecurity and health care information technology, among others.
Ms. Fisher said Atlanta represents a confluence of lofty dreams and grounded pragmatism: a place where great ideas by startups can be fashioned into solid businesses thanks to the leadership of Fortune 500 giants like Delta and Coca-Cola, which have set up innovation centers as a vote of confidence for the city’s tech ecosystem.
“They’ve said, ‘This is important. Atlanta has a differentiator: We are really where innovation meets the real world, so we should respond,'” Ms. Fisher said.
Pairing this overview with a visit to MailChimp made a mark for global city representatives.
It really hit home for Ingmar Schellhas, who heads up the office of the deputy mayor for economics in Nuremberg, Germany, a longtime Atlanta sister city.
Just like Ponce City Market, which began its life as a Sears distribution center, Nuremberg has a massive piece of property abandoned by a bankrupt mail-order retailer, Quelle, awaiting some kind of redevelopment. The site, which at 2.5 million square feet is even bigger than Ponce City, has been home to a few popup art shows and cultural festivals, but its owner, a Portuguese shopping center developer that bought it in 2015 for just 16.8 million euros, has yet to come up with a concrete plan.
“It’s the second largest building in Germany and we don’t now what to do with it,” said Mr. Schellhas, who says he might now try to talk with the developers of Ponce City. (Jamestown Properties, the Ponce City owner, happens to be based in Germany.)
To other attendees, the city-exchange program underscored new intersections between Atlanta and their hometowns.
Jacques Baran, who works in international affairs for the city of Toulouse, France, told Global Atlanta that he already knew the Atlanta tech story after having visited last year, but he’s finding it easier to find relevant partnerships as ties deepen.
“There was already solid ground, so we can build upon this. People know each other, and it’s a lot easier because we really have the trust,” Mr. Baran said.
The visit comes weeks before six international startups visit Atlanta from the sister cities of Newcastle, England, and Toulouse for the second annual Atlanta International Startup Exchange. They’ll attend Venture Atlanta, which just announced Shark Tank billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as its keynote speaker. Then, the following month, four Atlanta companies — two each to Newcastle and Toulouse —will reciprocate those visits.
These initiatives, plus participation in the Global Cities Initiative of the Brookings Institution, show how aggressive and ambitious Atlanta has been in finding new ways to capitalize on its international partnerships under Mr. Reed, officials said.
After working to create a region-wide export plan and foreign investment strategy, Marek Gootman of Brookings said Atlanta took the reins on the effort to make its ties with cities more productive.
“I have to reinforce that Atlanta started this effort before we even began starting this problem-solving cohort process,” he said. “We all owe Atlanta some recognition and some gratitude for being at the very forefront of this kind of activity.”
Sister cities, which historically have focused on cultural or educational exchanges, are a new arrow in cities’ economic development quivers, he said.
“Building on that relationship and making it an economic partnership is an area that we really want to explore,” he added.
Mary Kane, CEO of Sister Cities International and a former executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said cultural openness and prosperity are intertwined.
“I congratulate Atlanta, because you are one of our stellar programs. You do a great job with these relationships and welcoming international visitors and international business to your community. It is very important.”