March 29--After decades of helping spur the rapid growth of metro Atlanta's Northside, local leaders are trying to stage a push for the Southside by focusing on the less-developed area surrounding the world's busiest airport.
A group of government and business leaders has formed a nonprofit organization called the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance to organize the mishmash of cities, counties and businesses near the airport around a common mission: improving economic development and quality of life in the area by attracting international businesses, logistics companies and others.
They have a huge, globally known anchor in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which they see as the central business district for an "aerotropolis" -- defined as an urban development that emerges around an airport.
"We have an advantage no place else in the world has," said Joe Folz, the chairman of the new alliance and general counsel for Porsche Cars North America, the most prominent company in years to shift gears from the Northside to the airport area. In an increasingly global world, he said, "there's nothing that could be more important" than the airport.
Hub airports in other cities such as Washington have become centers of development for Fortune 500 firms, aerospace manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.
Hartsfield-Jackson has been called the "crown jewel" driving economic development in metro Atlanta, feeding growth in downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, the Perimeter area and Alpharetta.
Yet the immediate area surrounding the airport has been starved of such vibrancy. The airport area has long struggled with poor perceptions about everything from the appearance of industrial areas to the quality of schools and transit, and the lack of restaurants, high-end hotels and shops.
Now, the plan is to bring some of the airport-driven growth back to the airport area.
Porsche's plan to move about 450 employees to a new headquarters and accompanying test track just east of the airport between late this year and early next year is an economic development win for the Southside, making Porsche the vanguard for the airport area -- or the canary in a coal mine.
After years of business growth on the Northside, "Downtown is built. Midtown is built. Buckhead is built. Alpharetta is pretty much built," Folz said. "The future for growth in Atlanta is going to be on the Southside. And the center of economic development on the Southside of Atlanta has got to be the airport."
And Porsche has a vested interested in seeing a more thriving Southside.
"We just didn't want to be the only corporate headquarters moving into the area," Folz said. "We'd love to see more restaurants open, more new hotels open, more new service establishments open."
College Park Mayor Jack Longino said the alliance could help stimulate significant change in the airport area. "In years to come, you won't recognize it," Longino said.
The Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance, an outgrowth of an airport area working group convened by the Atlanta Regional Commission, has formed a board with 20 directors representing local governments, businesses, schools and nonprofits. It has received $25,000 from Clayton County's economic development agency and $40,000 from Georgia Power to start off.
The alliance plans to attract members and collect dues, and it also may seek grant funding, while developing a strategic plan this year. One of the key goals is to help market the airport area and recruit businesses.
"We're not trying to steal business from anywhere in metro Atlanta," Folz said. "We're trying to steal business from other states. There's no question about that."
One of the challenges for businesses that may want to locate in the airport area is the tangle of jurisdictions, including Atlanta, College Park, East Point, Hapeville, Clayton County and Fulton County. That means going to different jurisdictions for different approvals, Folz said, adding that an aim is to make that easier for other companies.
Alliance board members also hope to attract one of the handful of airport area development conferences to host near Hartsfield-Jackson.
Separate efforts are underway for local businesses to create self-taxing community improvement districts around the airport to improve area signs, landscaping and intersections, which the aerotropolis alliance says it supports and would invite onto its board.
Meanwhile, Hartsfield-Jackson is in the process of appraising some 20 parcels around the airport and about 37 acres near the entrance of the domestic terminal to possibly designate them for hotels, office space or services such as gas stations and dry cleaning, Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Miguel Southwell said. The airport plans to announce development initiatives by midyear, he said.
"We believe the purpose of an airport is as a community's economic development tool," Southwell said.
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