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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Beltline taps Paul Morris as new president and CEO

The Atlanta Beltline has a new leader.

This morning the smart-growth project's board of directors selected Paul Morris, who most recently was the deputy secretary for transit at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, to serve as the president and CEO.

Morris comes with a nearly 30-year background in consulting and management with experience in a laundry list of issues, including, according to Beltline officials, "transportation, urban regeneration and development, natural resource management, public parks, and the development of corporate and institutional facilities." At NCDOT, he oversaw the department's multi-modal divisions and several land-use and transportation efforts.

Morris, who received an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon, was a private consultant before joining the North Carolina state agency.

John Somerhalder, the chairman of the board of Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit organization tasked with planning and developing the 22-mile greenspace, trails, and transit loop, said Morris' "broad range of experience" made him the "absolute right candidate" for the job.

"Everything from being deputy secretary of transit for the North Carolina Department of Transportation to roles he's played with consulting firms that deal with projects similiar to what we dealt with here at the Beltline in many different places across the country," he said after the meeting. "We believe it adds very nicely to the great organization we already have."

It doesn't also hurt that Morris is surely familiar with Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who's set to become the next U.S. Transportation Secretary.

Morris, who will become the Beltline's fourth CEO in its nearly 7-year history, was one of two out-of-town candidates for the CEO position, along with Drew Wallace, who currently leads the Detroit Land Bank Authority. As Maria Saporta reported earlier this week, Wallace is the unanimous choice to lead Jacksonville's Downtown Investment Authority.

The three local people vying for the job included Tad Leithead, a longtime developer and current chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, and Tom Weyandt, formerly a longtime ARC chief wonk who now serves as Mayor Kasim Reed's senior transportation adviser. Lisa Gordon, ABI's chief operating officer who has served as interim CEO since the board ended Brian Leary's contract over project officials' inappropriate spending of public cash, was also a candidate. Somerhalder says the board has communicated to Gordon that they want her to remain on board.

"We had very good candidates both from outside the city and inside," Somerhalder said. "Lisa's done a remarkably good job of leading the organization... We believe Lisa is very valuable to the organization."

Morris, who could possibly move into ABI's downtown offices this summer, will become part of an organization that is riding high on the tails of opening the massively successful Eastside Trail that links some of the city's most vibrant northeast Atlanta neighborhoods between Piedmont Park and Inman Park. Project officials are crossing their fingers that an application for federal funding to help build a similar path along the Beltline's southwest segment is approved.

Morris will have to be creative to secure funding for the transit portion of the Beltline. The effort to boost affordable housing along the project, arguably one of the Beltline's most overlooked and important initiatives, will also require attention as residential development begins to pick up speed. And Mayor Kasim Reed has signaled that he's deadset on seeing the project built much faster than the original 25-year timeline proposed in the mid-2000s when ABI was created.

"We're in the process of finalizing an implementation plan that the organization has worked on for many months," Somerhalder said about what Morris would like to see happen with the project moving forward. "Direction is fairly clear. But we do want to see what is possible related to moving quicker on all aspects, including transit. We want to understand what other funding opportunities we have as an organization. Unique ideas about public-private partnerships. In all those areas we think we can move quicker on all those objectives we've always had."

Somerhalder and the board think Morris, who the board chairman says personally drove the project's corridor, is the right person to lead the effort.

"When we ask him to articulate his vision," he said, "it was very consistent with the board's vision."

We're trying to get in touch with Morris and will update if we speak with him.

In other Beltline-related news:

* COO Lisa Gordon told the board that the Beltline's recent application for federal funding to help build trails along the project's southwestern segment was updated to reference an application by MARTA. The transit agency is asking for cash to create an audio/visual system to provide information on how riders can interact with the Beltline. There's no set date on when the competitive grant winners will be announced, but there's a sense it could be around September.

"I think we have a competitive grant and we're pleased with it," Gordon said. We've asked MARTA for more information about the transit agency's application and will update.

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