Unsustainable pension liabilities. An underfunded police force. Traffic congestion. Shuttered recreation centers.
Kasim Reed had plenty to tackle after being sworn in as Atlanta‘s 59th mayor last January. For awhile it seemed that the city’s international ties would remain on the back burner while Mr. Reed faced these immediate challenges.
Atlanta had been without an international relations department since 2008. The two-person office fell victim to widespread budget cuts under outgoing Mayor Shirley Franklin. Four months after Mr. Reed took office, some in Atlanta’s international community had begun to complain that his administration was unresponsive.
When high-level delegations came through Atlanta, Mr. Reed carved out time to meet with them. Over the course of the year, he met with some 50 foreign leaders. But for the first half of 2010 his posture toward international relations seemed reactive compared to the measured, strategic approach he took to other problems.
GlobalAtlanta traveled to Nuremberg, Germany, in May and noted that the Atlanta sister city had a fully functioning international relations department with nine full-time staffers dedicated to maintaining bonds with its 11 sister cities.
Atlanta, which has 18 sister cities, lacked a formal, full-time mechanism to stay engaged with its global partners. Only an unpaid intern was devoted to the task.
The coming months showed that Mr. Reed was indeed aware of the problem and getting around to fixing it. In September, he revealed at a World Trade Center Atlanta luncheon that he would re-open the international relations department with three to seven full-time staff members in early 2011.
The mayor’s schedule over the ensuing months reiterated the need for such a department. In mid-October he hosted nearly 30 ambassadors, who had chosen to visit Atlanta on an annual State Department tour that helps top foreign diplomats to experience American cities outside Washington.
Later in the month, Mr. Reed traveled to Amsterdam, Netherlands, for the largest global conference in the air cargo industry, which is slated to be held in Atlanta in 2012.
In mid-November, Atlanta hosted the Americas Competitiveness Forum for the third time out of four years. The annual event brings together leaders from 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere to share ways to address challenges threatening to inhibit the region’s long-term economic growth.
After opening the forum, Mr. Reed caught a plane to the United Kingdom, where he discussed urban planning projects with the Prince of Wales and studied some of London‘s city operations. The British capital has an official devoted to keeping abreast of the needs of the local financial services industry. Mr. Reed is mulling a similar government office to make sure Atlanta is responding to the needs of the business community.
The mayor told GlobalAtlanta that he has his sights set on additional trips.
“I will go wherever I need to go to generate well-paying jobs in the city of Atlanta,” he said. “I don’t think that you can create the jobs of the future by sitting at 55 Trinity Avenue,” he said.
His office confirmed a report in the China Daily newspaper that said Mr. Reed will travel to China during the first quarter of 2011.
“I have watched and admired China’s growth and development, and I don’t think you can be a truly international city without having a strong relationship with China,” the paper quoted him as saying.
He’s doing more than globe-trotting, too. Mr. Reed has made the development of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport‘s cargo capabilities a major goal of his administration.
“If you’re out at Hartsfield-Jackson airport after 12 a.m., it’s a very quiet place,” he said. “It should function 24 hours a day, and that’s my goal,” he told GlobalAtlanta.
The reasoning is simple: Cargo creates jobs at multiple levels throughout Atlanta and the whole Southeast region.
So does foreign direct investment, Mr. Reed said at a City Hall press conference in late November. In a speech opening a 10-day program highlighting the Georgia Institute of Technology‘s relationship with France, the mayor made some of his most emphatic statements about Atlanta’s international destiny.
“I believe the future of Atlanta and the futures of great cities are to be global … global in scope, global in competitiveness, global in terms of the workforce,” he said. “We’re either going to be an international city and be a world-class city or we’re not. If we’re not we should not pretend to be and stop talking about it.”
Coverage on Mr. Reed and the city’s international department this year: