Two-thirds of the employees at Atlanta, BeltLine, Inc. are women, many of whom hold executive and senior leadership roles. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting some of the powerhouse women behind the scenes of the Atlanta BeltLine project.
Bubbly, energetic, and positive—Kara Keene Cooper lights up a room with her big smile and sparkling eyes. Everyone is a future friend, and no one leaves her presence without a kind word of encouragement. But don’t be fooled by this eternally optimistic demeanor: Cooper is a business savvy, strategic thinking force that is passionate about serving the Atlanta BeltLine business community.
Cooper first heard about the Atlanta BeltLine in 2006 while looking to buy her first home. It was at the height of the housing marketing before the economic crash, without a lot of affordable housing options. She finally settled on a home in Capitol View in southwest Atlanta, not far from the intersection of the Westside Trail and the Southside Trail.
“That changed my life,” she recalls. “The economy crashed, and people were struggling. I learned a lot about community and what it means to support your neighbors.”
Already immersed in the world of urban development, having earned her Master of Public Policy with a focus on Planning and Economic Development from Georgia State University, Cooper “fell in love with the way the [Atlanta BeltLine] project would be able to repurpose a railroad corridor that once divided the city to bring new connections.”
She volunteered as a founding member of Atlanta BeltLine Partnership’s junior board, AB67 while working in economic development for the Decide DeKalb Development Authority, representing one of Georgia’s largest counties. In 2018, she leapt at the opportunity to “peak behind the [ABI] curtain, work with brilliant people, and be a part of it” as an Economic Development Project Manager.
“I tend to live, eat, breathe the BeltLine. It’s a big part of my life, and I have to balance myself,” the self-proclaimed “Westside girl” confesses. “I’m running around BeltLine neighborhoods all day. I eat at BeltLine businesses. My kids go to BeltLine schools, and they play on the BeltLine. They did a Family Paint Day one time, and now whenever we go out on the trail and see their work, they feel like they’re Atlanta famous.”
Recently promoted to Director of Economic Development, Cooper applies her more than fifteen years of economic development and marketing experience to develop and execute economic development initiatives that empower existing BeltLine businesses in their growth strategies and to promote the corridor as a premier business destination within the City of Atlanta.
“Part of my job is to build brand awareness in the BeltLine business community. We bring businesses and business associations within the BeltLine Planning Area together to help foster cohesion and exchange best practices.”
This work ranges from connecting small businesses to resources to shepherding new entrepreneurs through the city procress of starting a business; programming impactful events for the business community, creating and implementing strategic initiatives, or keeping an ear to the ground on neighborhood issues and needs.
In the last 12 months, Cooper has shifted into overdrive to connect Atlanta BeltLine businesses to much-needed resources as face-to-face interactions were replaced by phone calls, emails, and zoom webinars to touch base with businesses and stay abreast of emerging needs. Single-handedly managing the department until staff vacancies could be filled, she oversaw the launch of the 2020-2021 Façade Improvement pARTnership Grant, participated in the robust community engagement campaign around the Murphy Crossing redevelopment, and saw to completion the construction of a 15-mile fiber optic network and duct system that will pave the way for new partnerships around smart city and public safety initiatives. She has also tirelessly led the charge in small business outreach regarding the proposed Special Service District (SSD), a targeted tax district where commercial and multi-family property owners pay slightly more in property taxes to fund the completion of the Atlanta BeltLine Trail.
“The relationships and platforms we’ve developed over the past few years to connect and inform BeltLine businesses have been critical to help ensure they have access to the most up-to-date information about resources and are informed about the SSD.”
Now that the ABI team is back at full capacity, Cooper is excited about what the future holds.
“From its inception the BeltLine was always intended to have an economic development fund to support small business, but the fund was never able to materialize due to the legal challenges and the project’s inability to seek bond financing early on. With an amazing team in place, and the potential passage of the SSD which would allow us to dedicate $12 million to supporting small businesses, I could not be any more excited to work hand in hand with our businesses and business districts to create and implement critical small business support programs that are tailored to their needs. These are the businesses that make up the very culture of our city, many of whom were here long before the BeltLine, and my passion is to work every day to help them become more resilient and to continue to serve the neighborhoods where they have always been.”
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