In honor of National Economic Development Week, May 4-9, 2020, we are thrilled to highlight the activities and work of our economic development team.
$10 billion in private investment, 30,000 permanent jobs, 48,000 one-year construction jobs—the numbers only begin to tell the story of what Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI) aims to accomplish for the city of Atlanta. With people—and the communities they live in or serve—at the very center of its efforts, economic development is a key component of ABI’s affordability strategy to promote economic growth and mobility. Although this strategy must pivot, along with all other strategies during the economic and public health crises brought on by COVID-19, it is this community-centered approach that will best equip BeltLine businesses to weather the storm that lies ahead. Behind these efforts stands a passionate, dedicated economic development team that is committed to empowering businesses big and small to succeed in their industry and ultimately bring new jobs to the city.
Since its inception in 2005, the nation has watched how non-traditional economic development is both a catalyst and an outcome of the Atlanta BeltLine. To date, the Atlanta BeltLine has generated an estimated $6.2 billion in private construction investment, creating some 43,560 one-year construction job opportunities. It has also led to the creation of approximately 18,700 permanent jobs by the estimated 6,000 businesses located around the Atlanta BeltLine.
Traditionally, economic development practices focus on attracting private investment and new businesses. Although ABI’s economic development team is a part of the recruitment process with other partners in the city, they pursue their primary goal of job growth through commercial product development and supporting growth and resilience of businesses along the BeltLine, which will, in turn, lead to more jobs.
“After considerable market research, we determined that capacity building and playing a product development role was where our team would be most effective,” shares Vice President for Economic Development Jerald Mitchell. “Our first priority is to support existing industry. Businesses on the BeltLine should stay on the BeltLine and grow so they can provide jobs. We partner with them to do that.”
Thanks to strong relationships with other economic development partners, the team supports existing and emerging small and medium businesses by connecting them to resources, creating opportunities, facilitating exchanges, and advocating for issues that affect local communities. In addition to building one-on-one relationships with businesses within the Atlanta BeltLine Planning Area, the team organizes meaningful events and programs designed to empower, inform, or showcase the businesses they serve, such as Atlanta BeltLine Business Breakfast or roundtable discussions.
“We work with legacy and small, local businesses to help them stay in their neighborhood. We help bring new industry, and we work with property owners and property management companies to help support vacant commercial spaces,” explains Kara Keene Cooper, Economic Development Program Manager. “We have to understand what our businesses are going through so we can help them. That means we keep an ear to the ground and base our programming on what will be impactful.”
Among the programs that have come out of this community-listening approach have included the Westside Warm-up— a full evening of activities leading up to Super Bowl LIII that highlighted the businesses and neighborhoods in Southwest Atlanta—or the Façade Improvement Program—which pairs local businesses in economically distressed areas with local artists for a façade renovation to enhance curb appeal.
Most recently, the team has been working with businesses in South Atlanta to explore the interest and feasibility of establishing a local business association, thanks to a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
As Special Projects Manager Heather Hussey-Coker puts it, “Our job is to share resources with the business community, share about opportunities, and mitigate concerns so that the businesses can carefully consider their options and then make a decision that is best for them.”
“It’s very exciting to be in an innovation space for economic development,” adds Keene Cooper. “We test strategies, not done elsewhere, on how infrastructure projects drive economic development.”
In addition, ABI’s economic development team works with developers to build capacity and bring more productive inventory to the market, including to the more economically distressed areas of the BeltLine business district. Capacity building also includes workforce development with the help of economic development partners like Invest Atlanta, Development Authority of Fulton County, Georgia Department of Economic Development, Small Business Administration, and others and finding other innovative ways to have a positive impact on the community.
“The Atlanta BeltLine is a tool for commerce, and we want to add to that narrative,” says Mitchell. “Our strength is in our ability to convene partners to bring resources to the development table.”
Pivoting Efforts in a COVID-19 Climate
This has become even more essential as ABI’s economic development team has had to refine their strategy with partners and end users to help BeltLine businesses that have been severely impacted by COVID-19. Although the team has suspended face-to-face engagements, they continue to engage partners and businesses online and over the phone. They are connecting businesses to technical assistance and also assembling and disseminating resources to help businesses strengthen their business strategy during this period of uncertainty. In March, the team shared a survey with the BeltLine Business community to help the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative and other economic development partners better understand the challenges that businesses are managing. They recently organized a virtual roundtable with their business associations, and later this month, they will also host their first virtual Atlanta BeltLine business group convening, providing a space for B2B exchanges during COVID-19.
“Everything we’re doing virtually will hopefully set us up for future engagement,” shares Hussey-Coker. “Since product delivery—the Atlanta BeltLine—is longer term, we’re creating an open-door message of what businesses can expect from us.”
Without a clear end to COVID-19 in sight, ABI’s economic development remains focused on the finding new ways to support business resilience and job growth.
“Many of the businesses around the BeltLine are hospitality and restaurants,” Mitchell describes of the current climate. “They are small neighborhood businesses run by smart, business savvy people. Even those who’ve done the best are barely making it. Communication is, therefore, key during this time, and we’re sharing every resource possible with our businesses so that they have access to help them thrive again.
“Moving forward, there will be significant interest in workforce development, and we view this as an opportunity to help people stand back up. Our focus needs to be about finding solutions to help get people back into the workforce, and that means connecting people to resources.”
Are you a business interested in connected with the ABI Economic Development Team? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get on their mailing list to stay in the loop and receive other resources.