Living and working on both the Northside and the Southside of Atlanta, I have noticed only one thing that really separates the two.
On the Northside, money determines what is built and destroyed, what is delayed and what is pursued. On the Southside, politics dictate development.
Think about it ... just about every major structure or public amenity built on the Southside in the last ten years or so has the stamp of a politician who is still living and breathing. The C. Crandle Bray Police Headquarters, the Virginia Burton Gray Recreation Center, the Carl G. Rhodenizer Recreation Center -- all of these additions to the community bear the name of people who expended a great deal of energy to make these places a reality.
A lot of times -- I would even venture to say most of the time -- it is a lack of effort, not a lack of money that keeps communities stagnant. A prime example of this is my hometown of Virginia Beach, Va.
By any description, Virginia Beach is very much a hamburger town. It's a wonderful place to live and raise a family, but behind the façade of being a vacation resort, it's a town of blue-collar people and greasy-spoon cafes.
Virginia Beach is also spread out with few points of reference. For the longest time, it never had anything remotely similar to a downtown.
Then, about five years ago, citizens began demanding more upscale development. The City of Virginia Beach decided to focus its efforts on about two square blocks of city space and call it the Virginia Beach Town Center.
To many people, the idea of a "downtown Virginia Beach" was impossible. However, through the efforts of the city government and a lot of smart business people, the city has designed something spectacular in an area that is fairly small.
Developers and business people have been able to build a P.F. Chang's, a Cheesecake Factory, a California Pizza Kitchen, an upscale comedy club, new offices for a local TV station, extension campuses for two major universities, two high-rise hotels, a pedestrian streetscape, several new stores, and a variety of new condominiums and apartments. Also, in the process of being built are a new performing arts center and new offices for The Virginian Pilot newspaper.
Now for people in the ATL, having a California Pizza Kitchen or a Cheesecake Factory probably isn't very exciting, but for people who would have to travel two or three hours to Richmond or D.C., for similar amenities, it makes a huge difference.
On the Southside, at this very moment, there are similar projects that may have a very positive economic impact, if they are able to come to fruition. Jonesboro has had a new vision for its downtown in the works for years, but lacks the political consensus to move the project forward. Riverdale has plans for a Town Center and there are several redevelopment projects taking place in Ellenwood, but ultimately, the deals are tied up in politics. Many of these projects will never succeed, unless the citizens vote them into reality.
People may say things about the Southside, but they are definitely beginning to notice the opportunities here. I've taken calls at the newsroom from as far away as New York, from curious investors seeking to buy their way into Clayton County. The recent feature on Clayton County in the October edition of "Georgia Trend" magazine is a good indicator of how people in metro Atlanta, and beyond, are gazing at the county with dollar signs in their eyes -- and waiting to see what we are going to do.
The one disadvantage to the Southside, though, is that nobody is going to give you a freebie. You have to get off your couch and vote, not just in the primary or the presidential election, but you have to go out in November and vote in your city elections. That five-percent-of-eligible-voters-coming-out-to-the-polls thing is no longer going to fly.
While choosing a president is important, city governments have more of an impact on your daily life than the president ever will. If you want progress, vote for progress. If you want change, vote for people who will make it happen.
I can't begin to tell you how important the elections coming up in the next three weeks are, so please vote ... pretty please. The southside has the chance to change the hand of cards its been dealt, but the decision rests on your shoulders.