With the city’s fiscal house in order and its international affairs department fully staffed, Mayor Kasim Reed sees his second term as the time for a concerted effort to assert Atlanta’s presence on the global stage.
“We’ve got to go big. The bottom line is that we’re going to go at this in a patient, sustained fashion over four years,” he told Global Atlanta in a wide-ranging interview in mid-March on the city’s international engagement. “This is not a fad. It’s something that I enjoy, it’s something that I believe in, and it’s something that is central to my strategy.”
That strategy involves solidifying the city’s “unchallenged” position as the economic and cultural hub of the South to ensure that it continues to benefit from demographic shifts in the U.S.
Too often, though, the city has failed to appreciate its own gravitas, and that has affected outside perceptions. During a recent trip to Silicon Valley, the mayor said many investors said, “We don’t believe that people in Atlanta dream big enough.”
“A part of Atlanta’s problem is not having a respect for our own work, and if you don’t respect what you’ve created – ‘you’ meaning generations of individuals who made some pretty smart decisions – nobody else is (going to),” Mr. Reed said during the interview at City Hall.
Having the third largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. and the world’s busiest airport are not “throwaway statements,” he said. Nor are rankings that show Atlanta among the upper echelons of global cities for attracting foreign investment in real estate and other sectors.
To the mayor, who traveled to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland to speak on city issues and represented the U.S. Conference of Mayors on infrastructure in Washington in January, it’s just a matter of matching local perception with empirical reality.
Welcoming the World
Beyond its practical advantages, Atlanta’s “real secret ingredient” is its inclusiveness, which the mayor said is both embodied in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and illustrated in his own administration’s receptive approach to immigrants and foreign visitors.
Mr. Reed has hosted more than 100 foreign delegations during his time in office, including a group from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, who attributed their comfort in the city to the spirit of the civil rights movement.
“The most important point that they made to me is that when they were in Atlanta people didn’t stare at them,” despite their Middle Eastern dress, Mr. Reed said.
He added that Africans also have a “unique feeling” of Atlanta thanks to their perception of Dr. King. As an illustration, he said he had no problem setting up a meeting with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum.
Already home to the second fastest growing foreign-born population of U.S. metro areas, Atlanta last October joined the Welcoming America initiative, which asks member cities and counties to take concrete steps toward better integrating immigrant communities.
That effort will be reinforced by the opening of the the National Center for Civil and Human Rights at Centennial Park in May.
Though hospitality isn’t new to Atlanta, the mayor said his administration has had to become a “counterweight” to a steady stream of “anti-immigrant” bills in the Georgia General Assembly that have spooked some investors and convention organizers over the last few years, Mr. Reed said.
“Every time there is an adverse piece of legislation, I make it clear that folks are welcome in the city of Atlanta,” he said without explicitly mentioning measures like HB-87.
He also touted strong ties with the city’s Hispanic community, which he said has for too long been seen as a “target” rather than an asset. His office is conducting a “disparity study” to ensure that Hispanic-owned business are getting their share of the city’s procurement contracts.
“There is not a high-profile elected official who engages in more events with the Hispanic community than I do. There just isn’t,” he said, two weeks before the Latin American Association announced that it would honor him at its Compañeros awards luncheon in late April.
Speaking a day after a Mexico versus Nigeria friendly brought more than 60,000 fans to the Georgia Dome, Mr. Reed directly linked his inclusive vision to his desire to attract a Major League Soccer franchise to the city.
It’s one reason he made sure that more than just the American version of “football” could be enjoyed at the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, where owner Arthur Blank will have a lot of empty nights and seats to fill.
“I am doing everything that I can possibly do to secure an MLS franchise. It is not a mistake that we spent as much political capital as we did to secure a football stadium for the Falcons,” Mr. Reed said.
He has been criticized for failing to exert similar energy to keep the Atlanta Braves from moving to Cobb County.
But he has said the city couldn’t justify the financial hit it would have taken to keep the Braves in a spot which he says has already received a lot of interest for redevelopment. The football stadium, on the other hand, is an integral piece of the Georgia World Congress Center complex, a marketing tool that helps Atlanta host more than 40 million visitors per year, he said.
City of Action
The stadium deal is just one way Mr. Reed sees the city of Atlanta itself taking control of its own destiny even as he continues to raise the banner of regionalism.
Though he has reached across the aisle to work with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal on Savannah harbor deepening, Mr. Reed was adamant that the city is taking its own initiative on a wide range of issues of vital importance.
“You pick it – large or small – and if you remove the City of Atlanta as the actor, you have a far more bleak picture as opposed to one that is hopeful, thriving and moving in the right direction,” he said.
His most emphatic example: The mayor and his retooled development authority, Invest Atlanta, bought back land from the old Ford plant in Hapeville and used it in a land swap that helped Porsche Cars North America procure space for a new $100 million headquarters and test track on the airport’s doorstep.
That move was the tipping point for a broader airport-city initiative aimed at building up the south side of Atlanta. The mayor believes it wouldn’t have happened without his foresight and friendship with Chief Executive Detlev von Platen, with whom the mayor had spent a weekend driving Porsches at the company’s instructional track in Birmingham, Ala.
Brazil and Africa
The city is also taking a more hands-on approach to its international relationships. The new international affairs department is reevaluating the sister-cities program to ensure that Atlanta’s 18 relationships are serving its goals, and the criteria go far beyond investment.
“I believe that arts and culture and educational exchanges are as vital to authentic engagement as our business ties are,” he said.
The mayor also said that he now has both the support staff and the time to undertake overseas trade missions.
Following a similar format he used in China in 2012, he is heading to Brazil April 5-12. This fall he’ll head to Africa, including stops in both Nigeria and Cape Town, South Africa, where he’ll attend the Nobel Peace Prize laureates summit that Atlanta will host in 2015.
While he always expects some “cheap shots” over foreign travel, Mr. Reed said it will be nothing like what his long-time political mentor faced in the early 1990s.
Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, congressman and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had to face a barrage of questions as soon as he stepped off the plane from Africa concerning who had been running the city in his absence.
But seeds Mr. Young built have borne fruit that goes far beyond the votes he helped garner for Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympics bid, Mr. Reed said, citing the extent of the city’s Nigerian community, which has invested heavily in real estate here.
“If you don’t engage in the (African) continent, you are giving up a lay up,” he added, noting that the Africa today has seven of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world.
“In the rest of the world there is more attention on Africa than there is on the U.S.,” he said, citing his conversations with officials in China and elsewhere.
Atlantans also realize how interconnected the world has become and that a mayor can’t build a global reputation by sitting at his desk.
“I think our citizens want Atlanta to be a leading city in the world, and I think that they understand that you can’t do it from 55 Trinity Avenue.”
The Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia is the presenting sponsor of Global Atlanta's Diplomacy Channel. Subscribe here for monthly Diplomacy newsletters.