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.
Back before COVID, Beth McMillan’s office at Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI) was a revolving door. At any given time, different staff could be found dropping by to provide updates about children and grandbabies, discuss various challenges, or imagine new ways to engage the community. And that’s exactly the way McMillan liked it.
People-focused, enterprising, and well-connected, Beth McMillan is an economist by education. City planning and community engagement were not exactly on her radar as a profession, yet an open door to apply her skillset for a new program within the Fulton County Department of Planning led to a gratifying career in the field. While serving as Director of Planning for the City of East Point, her best friend found “the perfect job” for her—so much so, that this friend applied for the job on McMillan’s behalf. It was 2009, and McMillan had never heard of the Atlanta BeltLine. When called in for an interview, she suddenly found herself googling the fledgling project and asking around with her friends at the City of Atlanta.
“I have loved every day of being at the Atlanta BeltLine,” proclaimed the Vice President of Community Planning and Engagement. “I truly believe in the vision and the transformational opportunity that the BeltLine provides. I love the people that I work with, and the project has such potential.”
McMillan boasts that she has “the only legislatively mandated job at the BeltLine”. Tasked with keeping the community informed and engaged on progress, she takes very seriously her role in providing a space where community members have a voice in the changes that the BeltLine project may bring to their neighborhood. Her purview includes managing and updating the ten Subarea Masterplans to reflect the forty-five neighborhoods within the BeltLine Planning Area; data analysis to measure the positive and negative impacts of the BeltLine; and arts and culture to find new artists and cultivate art appreciation within the community.
Among her ABI accomplishments over the past thirteen years, McMillan is most proud of working with the BeltLine Tax Allocation District Advisory Council (TADAC) on developing a community benefits policy, completing the first round of the ten Subarea Master Plans, and conducting research around Inclusionary Zoning, an affordable housing policy established by the City of Atlanta in 2018, to help mitigate displacement around the BeltLine.
Fiercely protective of her dedicated team of seven and the project, McMillan is always looking for new ways to innovate, troubleshoot, and find better methods of doing things.
“Each [neighborhood] have a different flavor, a different culture, and the people who live in those communities are different as well,” she stated, carefully weighing her words in thoughtful reflection. “My approach to community engagement is to meet people where they are, engage people the way they want to be engaged. Like when visiting a foreign country, you need to know the particulars of a community.”
Sometimes, pre-COVID, this meant organizing pop-ups with the team, a tent, and a table out on the trail, in a parking lot, a park, or at MARTA stations. Other times, it meant creating opportunities for the community to engage with ABI’s leadership through special “Coffee with the CEO” events.
“We’re always looking for new ways to get input, ways to keep us out and about to engage people.”
It’s this direct connection with the community that McMillan enjoys—and now misses—most.
“Before COVID, I would go to lunch and someone would recognize me as being affiliated with the BeltLine, which would lead to a conversation. I love getting to talk to the people we’re building the project for. Even just ten minutes before a community meeting. People fascinate me, and one day, I want to write a book about the people and the change that I saw in the city that I love.”
McMillan, who grew up on the Westside of Atlanta and attended Washington High School, has watched the city dramatically change from a small town, where “the community was your boundaries” to a bustling, cosmopolitan city with no more boundaries for communities. Cognizant of the cycle of urban neighborhoods, it is this concern for how communities change and what might emerge in their place that keeps her up at night, yet it is also her love of the people and the project that motivates her to continue her work, long beyond the duration she thought she’d stay.
“The connectional point that I believe the Atlanta BeltLine brings is that, through physical infrastructure, it is weaving and connecting and removing boundaries, if you will, for various communities. It provides that connectional tissue… to connect people and connect communities.”