The executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission calls the Perimeter area an example of great infrastructure planning, and says the rest of the metro Atlanta area has to catch up or die.
“If regions fail to adapt quickly enough, they can become irrelevant or actually extinct,” Doug Hooker told members of the Sandy Springs Rotary Club on Sept. 28.
Hooker said the region must adapt and continue to innovate to stay relevant and efficient for its people, natural life and built structures. The way to do this, he said, is through collaboration.
The biggest change the region must contend with is its continued growth, Hooker said. Attracting company headquarters such as those for Mercedes USA and State Farm shows the Perimeter’s strength in connectivity, with highways and MARTA, he said, but continued innovation happens best through collaboration.
“The only way to meet these challenges is through cooperative action and collaboration,” Hooker said. “We have to work together across jurisdictions, business sectors, cultural divides and socioeconomic lines in order to win the future.”
Hooker wants to choose a path to win the future, he said, by getting serious about improving education and the quality of the workforce, providing for affordable housing and coordinating growth as a unified region.
Part of the reason Mercedes, State Farm and other leading companies want to invest in the Perimeter area is because of connectivity between major highways and MARTA, Hooker said.
“Your economy is booming as a result of that,” he said. “With MARTA being here, your neighbors to the north, up Ga. 400, want a taste of what you are experiencing now, so they want MARTA to extend out to the north of Fulton County. They want what you have.”
After a 2014 public opinion poll showed transportation to be the region’s biggest issue, the ARC made creating a “world-class infrastructure” a priority.
But finding funding has become increasingly difficult, Hooker said, and he cautions not to expect more transportation money to come from the federal government.
The ARC works toward better “livability,” Hooker said, which includes connectivity as much as an investment in education and affordable housing for all people.
“We’re talking about real human lives,” he said.
Hooker talked about a woman who had to move to Smyrna after losing her apartment in Sandy Springs. She had to walk 19 miles a day to her job at Wal-Mart, Hooker said.
Developing and nurturing an innovation economy is crucial, Hooker said. Were the Atlanta region a country, it would be the 36th largest economy in the world, he said. “We are as a region as big as the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined,” Hooker said. “We are not a small, sleepy, Southern enterprise anymore.”
Having some of the highest rates of income inequality in the region drains its economy, Hooker said.
“The average household income in 2013 was about the same as it was in 1998,” He said. “Fifteen years, and essentially unchanged.”
Hooker said too many places import talent and leave locals to low wage jobs. Through collaborative innovation, the communities in the region can continue Atlanta’s growth in a manageable way, he said.
“Our region is at the precipice of tremendous change and opportunity,” Hooker said. “The choices before all of us are more important than ever. Our future is not written.”