The mayor is thanked after his final yearly speech at the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta.

Atlanta has joined a class of its own when it comes to wooing investment to the Southeast, says Mayor Kasim Reed, aided by missteps in neighboring states that can be traced back to simple failures of social inclusion. 

Birmingham, Ala., lost its mojo when it resisted the civil rights movement, he said. More recently, the economic backlash suffered by North Carolina over its now-repealed transgender bathroom bill, House Bill 2, shows one reason the mayor continues to oppose efforts to revive statewide “religious freedom” legislation that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in 2016 amid pressure from companies and sports organizations.

Atlanta’s “secret sauce” has been its legacy of inclusion, or “how we treat each other,” Mr. Reed said in his eighth and final speech to the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta March 28, asking his listeners to “protect our model.”

“I don’t hear anyone talking about Charlotte as a real competitor to the city of Atlanta anymore,” he said, saying Atlanta should become “one of the leading cities in the world, not just in the United States.”

He cast the vision of an “ascendant” city with record construction investment ($4 billion committed in 2016), housing starts (7,500 new permits compared to about half that in each of Cobb and Gwinnett counties), a solid financial footing (AA+ credit rating and $153 million in reserves) and 17 national corporate headquarters relocations over the last three years. 

During that time, North Carolina hasn’t been shortlisted in any major project for which the city has competed, he said. 

“When we’re opening that envelope, it’s Atlanta and Dallas now and somebody else,” Mr. Reed said. 

But inclusion isn’t limited to headline-grabbing social issues and their effects on inbound investment and talent recruitment. The mayor also outlined efforts to broaden opportunities for the city’s underprivileged communities as home prices rise thanks to a boom in technology investments and corporate relocations

A successful global city is “a city for everyone,” and as its core grows, Atlanta has the opportunity to become a national leader on the issue of affordable housing, he said. Already, builders are baking some lower-cost units into major multifamily developments downtown. The city center, he said, is being transformed as the sale of Underground Atlanta proceeds and as the area around Turner Field becomes a new Georgia State University sports and housing district. 

City councilwoman and mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms was in the audience as Mr. Reed outlined his advice for his successor: “Don’t blow the budget.” He said his administration’s financial performance has set the benchmark for what future leaders should be able to achieve without tax increases. 

The mayor also vowed to comply with authorities in a corruption investigation that has dogged his last year in office. 

Mr. Reed himself hasn’t been implicated in the federal probe, in which two construction contractors have pleaded guilty to bribing city procurement officials to win millions of dollars worth of contracts. He said he hoped to put the issue to rest before the end of his term.

“When I leave, the barn is going to be clean,” he said. 

He said Kiwanis members’ help would be needed to preserve the progress the city has made as it reaps the benefit of past successes.

“You all are going to to be here for the terrific parts.”

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...