In November 2021, the City of Atlanta and Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. were awarded a $16.46 million Rebuild American Infrastructure w/ Sustainable Equity (RAISE) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) for the construction of nearly two miles of the Southside Trail. The BeltLine’s Development Officer for Public Grants, Lena Carstens, was instrumental in achieving this monumental milestone.
Lena is not one for the spotlight, but she certainly knows how to help others—be it people or projects—shine. Active in her high school’s theater program outside Atlanta, she decided to pursue a stage management degree at Webster University’s Conservatory for Theatre Arts in St. Louis, which she says is “kind of like Fame, the college.”
After graduation, Lena moved to New York with a plan. Quickly hired for a production, she obtained her Actors’ Equity Union Card within six months and was soon working as a Broadway Production Stage Manager, knocking out her five-year goal in the first year. Despite the rapid rise, she realized this was not where she wanted to be. She entered a two-year dual degree program at Southern Methodist University, earning an MBA with a concentration in strategic leadership and an MA in arts administration.
Following her time at SMU, Lena received a fellowship grant to spend two years at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, training in how to run a theater. This led to an opportunity as managing director for Dad’s Garage improv theater, a role that required her to raise funds and apply for grants. Knowing improv zaniness didn’t extend to bookkeeping, she coined the truism, “we can take risks onstage or offstage, but not both.”
In 2011, Lena took a job in the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which she calls “the best job you can have with the city. Half the job was ensuring every City of Atlanta school student went on a cultural field trip every year, and half the job was overseeing grants for artists and arts organizations.” After four years, Lena knew how to navigate government grant making priorities and processes and how to work across multiple departments in Atlanta government well, making her an ideal fit in 2015 for the BeltLine’s first Development Officer for Public Grants.
Lena has been involved in several notable grant awards during her six years with the BeltLine. Application development is much like a large-scale group research paper involving collaboration and ensemble work, coupled with the artistic finesse of a compelling, yet data-driven narrative. Each takes months or even years to manage and oversee. One of the most significant grant awards came in the fall of 2021 in the form of a $16.46 million USDOT RAISE grant for the construction of nearly two miles of the Southside Trail from Pittsburgh Yards to Boulevard near Grant Park. This funding will help connect neighborhoods and job centers on both sides of I-75/85 and will be critical to helping connect the BeltLine’s Eastside and Westside Trails. Lena says this award, which she likens to winning the lottery, illustrates the difficulties involved in such grant applications. “We applied for this grant multiple times. Each time we learned something to help with the next application. We remain truly appreciative for the tremendous support from our congressional delegation.”
She has succeeded in getting numerous awards during her tenure, including an EPA brownfield remediation grant for the Southside Trail, a grant from the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program (GOSP) for construction of the Westside Trail along Marietta Blvd, and several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to support Art on the Atlanta BeltLine programs. She says it is important in her work not to look at the percentages of grants awarded because “if I measured my success that way, it would discourage me from going after the lottery-type grants” because the odds are so low. She summarizes her efforts to chase higher dollar awards, saying, “you can’t win if you don’t play.”
Another team member describes Lena as the “ABI Rosetta Stone” because she has such extensive knowledge of so many aspects of the project and the ability to translate across departments. She laughs at the description but notes that a stage manager on Broadway “must engage equally with movie stars and backstage hands and ticket-takers.” Similarly, she works routinely with everyone from engineers to the finance and legal teams at the BeltLine.
Lena loves all the BeltLine segments but has focused a lot of her energy on reconnecting communities along the Southside Trail. She suffered a “retirement-inducing injury” several years ago that forced her give up being a blocker for the Marietta Derby Darlins roller derby team and now spends much of her free time as a Girl Scout leader. Lena is the mother of two children and will celebrate her 20th wedding anniversary this summer!