The news of Metro Atlanta Chamber President Sam A. Williams’ pending retirement leads this region to an important crossroads.
Much rides on how well chamber leaders choose Williams’ successor. He or she will have a lot of work to do. How well the new president performs will be a noticeable factor in the future success of this still-young, still-energetic and still-troubled metropolitan colossus that we call home. The portfolio – written and unwritten — of the metro chamber is just that important to the affairs of Atlanta.
The need for a forward-thinking business community willing to prudently wade into the thick of public affairs should not be underestimated. Bluntly stated, fixing Atlanta, and Georgia’s, biggest shortcomings can’t be done without their help.
The metro chamber’s role and influence have long been felt at the core of Atlanta’s leadership. At times, they’ve worked quietly, behind the scenes, as is often the way of businesspeople. In other instances, Williams and others have been out on the bleeding edge, leading sometimes-unpopular charges. Those campaigns have helped create the economic powerhouse that is modern-day Atlanta.
The outspokenness of the business sector here is a key part of the Atlanta Way. That’s a competitive advantage distinguishing us from other cities, we’d argue. This hard-to-replicate strength must continue under new management after Williams heads off the main stage.
It was the chamber led by Williams that, faced with a political vacuum at best and open hostility to Atlanta at worst, nevertheless lobbied year after frustrating year to get the Georgia General Assembly to create the law authorizing regional T-SPLOST referendums. It took guts for business leaders to argue for a vote on increasing taxes, but the desperate transportation situation in Georgia warranted their outside-the-box thinking.
More importantly, the chamber didn’t stop their advocacy after Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the Transportation Investment Act into law. The group took the lead in raising money — $8 million – for a marketing campaign in support of the T-SPLOST.
Voters distrustful that government would use the proceeds wisely sent the penny sales tax down to decisive defeat. Almost a year later, we’re now starting to scratch around for the mythical “Plan B.”
The next leader of the chamber will play a sizable role in this ongoing search for congestion relief in Atlanta. We have no positive alternative but to somehow find a workable mechanism to pay for coordinated improvements in our tired transportation infrastructure. The business leaders, for example, whose delivery trucks are continually stuck in Atlanta’s legendary traffic jams know the cost of hindered mobility better than most. And they must stay engaged in the process of facilitating a solution.
Chamber members brought similar expertise to the task force that analyzed Georgia’s chronic water supply shortage and offered a set of solution scenarios. Business leaders pragmatically attacked the problem while much of the state’s political leadership was content to place hopes on a positive outcome of a tri-state court case – which was far from a sure thing. Luckily, the court ultimately ruled in Georgia’s favor. Had it not, the chamber’s water business plan would have been sorely needed.
The chamber took on similar leadership roles around replacing the Georgia flag and restoring Grady Hospital to better financial standing. Those civic stances brought about substantive changes.
All of which is not to say that Williams and the chamber haven’t stumbled at times. This editorial page has been critical of their actions around the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal and the chamber’s support of former Superintendent Beverly Hall which, in our view, continued for far too long.
This newspaper also battled with the chamber over records relating to efforts to lure the NASCAR Hall of Fame to Atlanta.
Given the roles of this newspaper and the chamber in our community, such disputes are not unexpected. They’re in line with the political axiom about having no permanent friends or enemies – just permanent interests. In that regard, in different ways, we’re both vested in helping guide this region to a better place.
Atlanta faces both tremendous opportunities and difficult, but surmountable, challenges in the years ahead. The next president of the metro chamber will be in the thick of that work.
Atlanta has run a hard race and placed well overall in recent decades. Given the momentous events of his 17-year tenure, it’s not hard to see why Williams, 68, now plans to move on. His retirement is well-deserved.
His final job, and that of chamber leaders, is to ensure that the next president is enough of a visionary to keep urging the Atlanta region toward higher heights and enough of a pragmatist to build the relationships needed to help turn those visions into reality.