The Metro Atlanta Chamber’s annual meeting Thursday revealed an acceleration of its ongoing push to position Atlanta as a future-facing city that can appeal to the workforce of tomorrow.
While some of the chamber’s largest stakeholders are big, established corporate entities — 15 Fortune 500s were represented at the event — it clearly sees the need to promote a culture of creativity that will prove irresistible to the coveted “millennial” demographic.
Even the big corporations, the argument goes, need innovators among their ranks, and those people want to live in a place with a distinct cultural voice.
The chamber used the event, with 2,000-plus gathered on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to unveil a new app featuring the city’s “creators” in music, media, food, arts and culture.
THEA, which mashes up a nickname for city, “The A”, has launched in a beta version on iOS and Android devices. Its 15 channels and 130 videos are also available for streaming on the Internet.
Speaking to reporters after confetti had rained down and pyrotechnics flamed out, chamber President and CEO Hala Moddelmog said there’s no conflict between wooing young people and satisfying employers in traditional industries like manufacturing.
“It doesn’t take anything away from fintech, cybersecurity and all the things we work on day in and day out,” Ms. Moddelmog said. “It’s a piece that’s extra to attract the talent.”
Local residents are being asked download the app, which is also calling for more local brands and content providers to sign up. The app will be officially unveiled at next year’s SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.
It’s unclear how much cultural videos could impact site-selection consultants, but advocates like ChooseATL’s Kate Atwood say THEA is a way to encapsulate what Atlanta has to offer from a cultural standpoint — its hiphop heritage and its film and fashion achievements — in one place. Tech and manufacturing talent want to be near creative culture, she said.
“All we’re doing is elevating the creative talent in the spirit of making everybody feel that they’re a part of the creative movement that is Atlanta,” Ms. Atwood said.
That’s essential to solving one of the big hindrances to attracting investment to the city: awareness.
When ChooseATL began, “We had a problem with Atlanta being in the mindset of young people. Now, 24 months later, there is a curiosity there,” Ms. Atwood added.
The same is true globally, which is why this year, chamber leaders have traveled to 22 countries and 35 U.S. cities in an attempt to let people in on the too-well-kept secret that Atlanta is a city on the move.
“We know that we have the creative talent here and the world doesn’t know that yet, and we’ve got to make sure that tether is tied to Atlanta,” Ms. Atwood said.
Metro Atlanta Chamber leaders last week took part in a delegation to China with Georgia Tech, whose basketball game versus UCLA in Shanghai was attended by Tech alumni who now serve in major Chinese companies.
Ms. Moddelmog said more could be done to use such alumni networks for foreign-investment recruitment.
“I don’t think we do that enough,” she told Global Atlanta.
All the focus on grassroots creativity doesn’t mean the city is completely turning its back on its longstanding corporate culture.
Jeff Sprecher, founder and CEO of IntercontinentalExchange, announced at the annual meeting that he will be succeeded as chair of the chamber in 2018 by Russell Stokes, president and CEO of GE Power, followed by UPS President and CEO David Abney in 2019 and Invesco President and CEO Marty Flanagan in 2020.
In a speech with Mr. Stokes, Mr. Abney tied the need for talent to corporations’ ability to succeed. Talent, he said, is the region’s “strongest competitive advantage.”
“Innovation has been the key to our longevity and our growth, and the key to our innovation is diversity and inclusion,” Mr. Abney said.
That tied in with one of the chamber’s advocacy goals for the coming year: Making sure that proposed laws like so-called “Religious Freedom” bills don’t reflect poorly on its reputation for openness, Ms. Moddelmog said.
The chamber will also be pushing for greater transit access. Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer, said the city’s focus on the issue came before the push for Amazon’s HQ2, which made transit access part of its bid criteria.
She pointed to infrastructure bonds and the referendum approved by City of Atlanta voters to fund $2.5 billion in MARTA expansion through a local sales tax.
But she added that statewide conversations on transit happening under the Gold Dome were also encouraging.
“I believe the future is bright in transit,” Ms. Kirkpatrick said, noting that moving people is about more than just heavy rail systems but can also include light rail, autonomous vehicles and more.
The chamber’s three pillars for 2018 announced at the event include new approaches to economic development, focusing heavily on education and highlighting economic mobility — ensuring more Atlantans have access to benefits of the city’s growth.
On that last point, Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank has been hailed as a leader. His foundation has contributed millions to the Westside neighborhoods in the shadow of the stadium.
Mr. Blank said at the chamber event that business and philanthropy are two sides of the same coin.
He also noted that Atlanta’s soccer ascendance wasn’t an accident: He always had a vision for the team to have a “global view.”Already having set records for Major League Soccer attendance in its inaugural season, he hopes Atlanta United will next year set international records.