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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Arthur Blank: Atlanta's greatest challenges are improving transit and public education

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 5:12 PM

Nothing says "rise and shine" like listening to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank speak his mind inside of Maggiano's at the crack of dawn. But dozens of people crammed into the Buckhead restaurant early this morning to hear the Home Depot co-founder talk about a wide range of topics during an Atlanta magazine breakfast event.

Blank discussed his early childhood, HBO's Falcons mini-series "Hard Knocks," Atlanta's Major League Soccer franchise, and his philanthropic efforts. But his remarks on Downtown, how the Falcons fit into the neighborhood, and Atlanta's biggest struggles were particularly noteworthy. Here's a few excepts from his talk:

On why it was important to keep the Falcons in Downtown:

I committed to Downtown Atlanta. I committed to the intensity that we find in an urban environment. Atlanta is a great city. Great cities have great downtowns in a variety of ways. ... Look at what's happening downtown with my partner building one of the largest aquariums in the world, the [National Center for Civil and Human Rights], the World of Coke, and the new College Football Hall of Fame. The list goes on and on. ... Look at the activity Downtown. When I first moved here in 1978, you came to Atlanta for a day, you went to one event, and then you'd leave. Today you come to Downtown Atlanta, stay [multiple] days, bring the family, do a variety of things, and are able to walk to everything, which is a tremendous advantage as opposed being out in the middle of suburbia someplace. That's not to say so you can't be successful as a franchise [in the suburbs]. For the city, I think [staying] was important. For our long-term mission of not only creating a great stadium, but a great atmosphere within the stadium, we'll be an integral part of the city and the westside revitalization. We needed to be Downtown.

On the Atlanta Braves' decision to leave Downtown for Cobb County:

Our rationale is pretty clear as to why we wanted to stay Downtown. I think the Braves did want to stay Downtown. If you spoke to Mayor [Shirley] Franklin or Mayor [Kasim] Reed. They'd tell you that as well. I think the Braves folks would tell you that as well. They worked long and hard about trying to negotiate a deal that made sense for them long-term and for the city long-term. They just ran out of time and ran out of the ability to do that. The city and the region have a lot of priorities, a lot of choices to make. ... It's not like they're moving to a different country. They're 12 miles away from they were. When people think of Atlanta today, they don't think of the city of Atlanta with less than 1 million people. They think of Atlanta as a region with 6 million-plus [people]. [The Braves are] still a part of Atlanta. They're in Cobb County, but they're still part of Atlanta. I think they view themselves that way. They're not changing their name or their shirt. It was a thoughtful and difficult decision, but there's no question the city will find a tremendous use of that property in an area that needs to be further developed.

On Atlanta's biggest challenges moving forward:

The greatest challenge[s] I see for Atlanta [are] to improve the quality of life with transit and public education. We need to be able to match the energy and commitments put into the growth of our economy with making sure the quality of life is actually improved from where we are today. Traffic in Atlanta can be horrendous as we all know. We have to figure that out and expand our public transportation and do a better job in that area than we have. ... There's a lot of [political] pull and push in a variety of directions that keeps that focus from being as strong as it needs to be. I think the political will is there. I hope Atlanta has learned through the experience getting ready from the Olympics, dealing with the [city's] growth part of that time, to focus on all the social needs we have as well.

Blank added that he never really considered building a mixed-use complex adjacent to the Falcons stadium, similar to what the Braves have proposed. He instead said he wanted to devote his energy toward both constructing the world's "finest sport-entertainment facility" and improving the neighborhoods surrounding the new stadium.

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