The Atlanta Beltline hired a veteran transportation and urban planning expert Wednesday to lead the ambitious project and rebuild public trust after a previous leader was ousted over questionable use of taxpayer funds.
Paul Morris, a former North Carolina Department of Transportation deputy and planning consultant, was selected in a national search for the top Beltline job.
Beltline board members praised his experience and background, which spanned public and private sectors. And his ties with Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who was recently tapped by President Barack Obama to become the next U.S. secretary of transportation, undoubtedly worked in his favor.
The organization’s hire comes almost a year after former chief Brian Leary left the organization following an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that revealed officials used tax dollars for gifts, events and personal items.
Mayor Kasim Reed, who sits on the Beltline board, said Morris’ appointment will help establish Atlanta as a national model for urban revitalization.
“With almost 30 years of transportation and urban development experience, Paul Morris brings an impressive depth of management experience to the Atlanta Beltline,” he said in a statement.
The Beltline is a pivotal part of Atlanta’s long-term development plan. The nonprofit, which operates under city oversight, aims to turn a 22-mile loop of rail lines into a necklace of parks, residences and businesses, and it’s already transformed some blighted tracts into sought-after real estate. A streetcar route is planned to tie it together, though funding is in limbo after last year’s defeat of a regional transportation tax.
The Beltline gets most of its money to acquire land and pursue redevelopment from property tax growth generated by a special tax district around the project, under the theory it will pay off through long-term economic growth. A separate nonprofit group also has raised tens of millions of dollars for the project from private donors.
That’s why last year’s reports were so troubling to some city officials. The AJC found that the organization charged taxpayers for wedding gifts, a dry cleaning bill, a parking ticket and other items that frustrated City Hall and infuriated watchdog groups.
It also highlighted other expenses, such as a $2,100 taxpayer-funded bill for food at a Braves game. Leary was ousted in August. Leary pulled in a salary of $195,000 in 2011, plus another $28,000 in bonuses.
The Beltline’s chief operating officer, Lisa Gordon, served as an interim leader while the organization searched for a new CEO. She was among the five finalists for the job.
Morris, 52, whose start date is still in the works, will inherit the organization at a crucial moment. The project has received more than $340 million in funding since 2006 and attracted more than $1 billion in new development, enlivening areas around the Old Fourth Ward and other nearby neighborhoods.
But Morris will have to try to find new ways to come up with more transportation funding and work to secure additional money for the miles of right of way and green space planned along the route.
“This team has done a tremendous job during the transition, and we want to keep the momentum going,” Beltline board Chair John Somerhalder said in a statement. “We believe Mr. Morris is the right person to guide the progress of the Atlanta Beltline into its next phase.”