Published Friday, March 01, 2013

'Nobody has what South Metro has and that is the Atlanta airport'


Editor’s note: Today’s articles on the impact of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport for the South Metro region are the third installment in coverage of issues discussed during the recent South Metro Development Outlook conference.

When Joseph Folz first heard the plan to move the headquarters for Porsche Cars North America from the perimeter to the area of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, he thought it was “a great idea” — a great idea that would never work.

“It’s a great idea, but I don’t see how we’re ever going to make it happen,” Folz, the company’s general counsel and secretary, said, recalling his reaction to the proposal. “I was absolutely, completely wrong.”

Folz said the process of dealing with multiple parties proved “much easier — frankly — than I ever thought it could be.” He added, “Regional cooperation in our experience has been exceptional.”

Folz was one of several people talking — at the recent South Metro Development Outlook conference — about Porsche’s relocation to the airport area and what that move signals for growth in an area that has strong economic impact on all the counties south of Atlanta. Several Cowetans attended the conference Feb. 20 at the Georgia International Convention Center.

The Collaborative Firm puts together the annual program.

One of the concerns about Porsche’s move to the airport area was all the entities that could be involved — the City of Atlanta, the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration and multiple counties and smaller municipalities. Concerns about turf battles did not materialize.

“From the very first time we mentioned the idea, everybody said, ‘How can we help you?’” Folz recalled.

Ceasar Mitchell talked about the cooperative efforts that made the Porsche deal a reality. Porsche is “an incredible anchor” for what is to come in the area around the airport, Mitchell said. “There is much, much potential.”

Louis Miller, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson, said the Atlanta airport is particularly suited to projects that will impact multiple jurisdictions.

“Hartsfield-Jackson is really unique,” he said — noting that the airport is the world’s busiest but also is located on only 4,500 acres.

In some cities, the airport sits on 16,000-20,000 dedicated acres.

To maximize the economic impact of Hartsfield-Jackson, “we need to bring political and government leaders together, the communities together,” Miller said. “We have to work together, as we have... Working with our community is probably the most important thing we can do.”

Porsche’s American headquarters opened in Atlanta in 1998 “largely because of the transportation” access, Folz said.

“We’ve been very happy residents of the perimeter area. It’s a very conducive place to do business, but we wanted our headquarters to be more than just a headquarters. We want a place where our customers and our employees and the community could see what Porsche is really all about,” Folz said.

“We looked at 74 different sites in three different states,” he said. Once the airport site came into focus, the site search ended. The result was “a larger development than we had ever even intended,” Folz said.

Still, “it was a contentious and sometimes controversial idea within our company,” Folz said of the move. “The angst came with the possibility of relocating.”

He said 75 percent of the company’s employees lived within 10 miles of the Sandy Springs headquarters. There were concerns about employees “having a very bad commuting experience or people having to uproot their lives to move to the Southern Crescent,” he said.

“People have become increasingly excited about what we will gain,” Folz said. “A location near the airport — the more we thought about — (became) the only place for us to be.”

Folz said he believes the idea is one that “can be sold to other potential new businesses, as well.”

The Porsche site is “barely outside the fence” of the airport, Miller said. “It’s going to be the perfect catalyst to stimulate additional development... There’s a lot of opportunity in the future to see that continue to grow.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spoke at the SMDO conference of the airport’s future in glowing terms. “First and foremost, the future of the airport is to continue for another 10 years to be the dominant airport in the world.”

He said Hartsfield-Jackson has cash reserves of $700 million. The goal, Reed said, is for the airport to “continue to do what it’s supposed to do.”

The airport has “brought so much business and industry” to this area south of Atlanta, said U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. Third District, and a Coweta resident.

U.S. Rep. David Scott observed, “Nobody has what South Metro has and that is the Atlanta airport.”

“The economic impact is not just the biggest in the state of Georgia. It’s the biggest in the Southeast,” Reed said. “It ought to be the goal of everybody in this room for it to hum 24 hours a day.”

Steve Brown, chairman of the Fayette County Commission, noted “the symbiotic relationship” between communities south of Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Michael Hightower, chief executive officer for The Collaborative Firm, the largest minority owned urban planning firm in the Southeast, is a native of College Park. “We have such wonderful resources in this region. ...South metro has some wonderful things going on,” he said. “One of the tremendous assets of this region is Hartsfield-Jackson.”

Hightower spoke of how so many people “live and work around this great facility.” He also talked about the efforts of an airport task force “to expand on this asset.”

Brown was on one of the SMDO panels. He said the majority of Fayette residents commute — working “north of Fayette County, particularly around the airport.”

Fayette, like Coweta, has worked to tap into the film industry’s projects in the region. He said film prospects invariably want to know how quickly they can get to the airport from a particular site.

Brown said he has talked with Coweta County Commission Chairman Bob Blackburn and Fulton County Commission Chairman Reginald Eaves about improvements to Interstate 85 in the Fairburn area, with an eye toward moving citizens from all three counties back and forth from the airport to work each day. “That is one of our primary objectives — keeping that (connection) to the airport open,” Brown said.

Jeff Turner, chairman of the Clayton County Commission, expressed similar thoughts. “We must connect to the world. We must connect to the airport,” he said. “The airport is in our backyard. It only benefits us to have a close working relationship with the Atlanta airport and with the City of Atlanta... We have to have a close working relationship with them.”

Miller said it will be important, moving forward, to look at “what is compatible development... not only today but into the future.”

Folz said Porsche sees itself as part of something dynamic and growing at the airport. “We’re looking forward to many people joining us. We want to be a very important part of this development,” he said.

“What is happening in Georgia, in Atlanta and in the Southern Cresent” is exciting, Folz said.

Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, was among those receiving awards during the SMDO event. She pointed to the region’s transportation assets as a key to future growth.

“We have the airport. We have the Interstate system, and we have some of the best leadership anywhere. It’s going to be up to us,” Pippin said. “We are Atlanta’s new frontier,” Pippin said.

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