Even if Southwest Airlines Co. reduces the number of its flights to Atlanta, the anticipated increase in international flights should guarantee the city’s dominance as the commercial center of the Southeast, Mayor Kasim Reed told the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta Jan. 3.
Speculation that Southwest’s takeover of AirTran Holdings Co. is to result in a cutback of flights to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport because 60 percent of AirTran passengers use the airport only for connecting flights is irrelevant to the airport’s future, the mayor said.
“Hartsfield-Jackson is our greatest advantage, more of an advantage than anything else,” he added. “Charlotte will never catch up because of the airport. You can’t build another Hartsfield…”
The mayor didn’t mention it, but the opening of the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal in May reinforces this claim.
The Ann Cramer Room in the Loudermilk Center downtown was packed with 120 or so club members and 45 guests at the weekly Kiwanis luncheon, which traditionally leads off the New Year with the mayor as speaker.
The club bulletin in announcing its upcoming program celebrated Mr. Reed’s hiring of more police officers, re-opening the city’s recreation centers and improving city services generally. It also praised the increase in city reserves from $7.4 million to more than $70 million with the 18 months from the time that he assumed office.
Lisa Borders, the former city council president and rival for mayor who debated Mr. Reed 58 times before dropping out of the race and endorsing him, praised his accomplishments since he took over the post two years ago.
And he didn’t shy away from reviewing his accomplishments. Nevertheless, he also underscored his concern for the city’s future, especially if state voters don’t pass a penny sales tax for regional transportation this summer.
Without proper infrastructure, he said, the city and the state as a whole would suffer due to increased traffic congestion that limits the pool of qualified employees who want to work here and already has been responsible for the loss of new investment.
He reiterated his concern when asked about the city’s long-term goals. “If you don’t have the infrastructure, you won’t have the seaports, the road, light rail and we’ll be left behind.”
His main challenge, he said, is to protect the city’s brand by maintaining a low tax structure and protecting its reputation for being safe.
On these counts, he said that the city, especially with the increase in number of police and council’s adoption of pension reform, continues to perform well.
But Kiwanis members, he added, needed to pay attention to the city and state’s lack of wage growth and the rise of competing cities in the South during the current economic downturn.
Following the luncheon, the mayor was scheduled to meet with the council where the issue of airport concessions was to be debated. He said that he anticipated having “a pretty tough time” in view of the controversies about who would be awarded the lucrative contracts.
But the T-SPLOST, the regional transportation sales tax referendum, he said, overshadows all of his other concerns. If passed, the tax would generate about $700 million a year for 10 years, money that would go into the city’s transportation networks.
He framed his support for the tax in the broadest historical terms, citing the criticism faced by former Mayor William Hartsfield, who was responsible for having the airport located on an auto racetrack.
If former Mayor Ivan Allen had not pushed through MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, he said, the city would not have been able to land the 1996 Summer Olympics and many other events including Super Bowls or All Star games.
He also cited former Mayor Andrew Young’s support for the Freedom Parkway and the Carter Center in the face of neighborhood opposition as well as the controversies surrounding Georgia 400, a state highway.
As further proof of the need for tenacity as well as vision, he said that the Fulton County stadium was built before Atlanta had a baseball team. “These are the things that you learn when you are mayor,” he quipped.
In his view, the T-SPLOST is as controversial as any of these prior projects, and Atlanta would be severely hampered in its claim to be the commercial center of the region if the measure is not approved by the referendum.
Having said that, he reaffirmed the city’s dominance as a logistics hub, adding that he would like to see the airport fully active 24 hours a day.
The city, he said, should be the logistics center for the Western Hemisphere with access to 80 percent of the U.S. population in two hours or less and growing ties to Latin America and Cuba.
“We are learning that delegations from abroad, from China, Russia, India and Brazil, that used to like to stay as long as possible, now they want to conduct their business, get on the phone and go back home.”
Not to be responsive to these developments and the need to have the corresponding infrastructure was a choice “about whether we want to move forward or whether we want to be small.”
If the T-SPLOST referendum fails, he said, “I will be wearing a T-shirt that says: ‘Chasing Mississippi.” He then quickly caught himself, adding that he loved the state of Mississippi and apologized to anyone from there.
To learn more about Kiwanis Club of Atlanta activities, go here.