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ARC focuses on Hartsfield’s ‘economic engine’

Speakers say airport should enrich Southern Crescent more than it has

Photo by Jim Massara
Community improvement districts would be the best way to unite government and business to harness Hartsfield, according to ARC chairman Tad Leithead.

Photo by Jim Massara Community improvement districts would be the best way to unite government and business to harness Hartsfield, according to ARC chairman Tad Leithead.

The Atlanta Regional Commission put its muscle behind making Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport an “economic engine” for the Southern Crescent by announcing Thursday the formation of an Airport Task Force. It will begin meeting in August.

“We are right at the dead center of the most significant economic engine in the Southeast, maybe in the country,” said ARC Chairman Tad Leithead, speaking before more than 100 area civic and business leaders in College Park. “It is my belief this is going to be the center for economic activity over the coming years. And the better we work together in this area, the faster it’s going to happen.”

At issue is why the busiest airport in the world hasn’t enriched metro Atlanta’s south side, where it resides.

Speakers at the Thursday morning breakfast, staged by the ARC and several area chambers of commerce, repeatedly pointed out that while Atlanta has grown to the north, the south end has come up with “the short end of the stick,” as Leithead put it. They also repeatedly referred to Hartsfield as an “economic engine” that could help revive communities south of I-285.

The solution, according to Leithead and Nancey Green Leigh, a Georgia Tech planning expert who also spoke, would be to create community improvement districts that would lead to the area becoming an “aerotropolis” — a region around Hartsfield that would be fueled by airport-dependent businesses.

“We’ve done this kind of thing before,” Leigh said of the cooperation required to pull it off. “Look what we did with the Olympics. We were able to do it when we got very inspired.”

Leigh, lead author of a top college text on planning and economic development, pointed to aerotropolises abroad in Amsterdam and Hong Kong and at home in Denver and Memphis as examples of what could be accomplished here. She also said she was “puzzled” as to why it hadn’t happened here.

“Lots of the headquarters of corporations have been historically in north Atlanta, and that might be part of the reason it’s the case,” Leigh said after the breakfast. “But in the meantime [Hartsfield] has been getting bigger and bigger and more and more important. We need to capitalize on what’s going on here.”

Leithead, who also chairs the Cumberland Community Improvement District, said such organizations were excellent ways to “fast-track infrastructure improvements” by uniting businesses to tax themselves and then use the proceeds for roads, water and sewer improvements, or any other public improvements.

While CIDs can’t cross counties — and there are many in metro Atlanta — Leithead said he was a strong believer in the public-private partnerships they promote. “They will not worry about where the Fulton Clayton line is,” Leithead said. “They will see the opportunity to develop an economic agenda for long-term growth irrespective of whose political agenda is furthered.”

After the breakfast, ARC executive director Doug Hooker said he was “extremely encouraged” by questions and feedback of those who attended.

“I’ve heard a lot of things that say the goodwill is there,” Hooker said. “Only time will tell.”