Visitors walk along the Atlanta Beltline at Ponce City Market in Atlanta, on Monday, October 17, 2016. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Beltline CEO McGowan said to be taking on new job in Seattle

*UPDATED: Atlanta Beltline CEO Brian McGowan was formally announced on Friday as the new chief executive of Greater Seattle Partners. He expected to start in August. 

In an announcement issued by Greater Seattle Partners, McGowan said: “I am thrilled to come to the Puget Sound region and build on its stellar foundation of highly innovative business, its commitment to international trade and its eagerness to compete globally to bring new investment to the region.”

ORIGINAL STORY BELOW: 

The Atlanta Beltline could soon lose its chief executive to a major economic development job in Seattle.

Beltline CEO Brian McGowan is the sole finalist and is expected to become the first chief executive of Greater Seattle Partners, a newly formed public-private business recruitment and development organization in the Emerald City, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News have confirmed.

If McGowan does leave, it will create yet another major job opening in Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ cabinet, which is also lacking a permanent general manager for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The departure would come at a crucial time for the Beltline, as the organization, MARTA and the city map out future rapid transit expansions to be funded by a half-penny sales tax that city voters approved in 2016.

Atlanta Beltline CEO Brian McGowan
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Representatives for Bottoms and the Beltline did not return messages seeking comment, and McGowan declined to discuss the matter.

Puget Sound Business Journal, citing an unnamed source, first reported Tuesday that McGowan had been hired as the Seattle group’s CEO.

A formal announcement is expected in the coming days, a person familiar with the matter told the AJC.

McGowan joined the Beltline less than a year ago, replacing Paul Morris, who stepped down in August after mounting pressure over the agency’s failure to meet affordable housing goals.

The Beltline is one of the city’s most popular amenities and has been a boon for development along the 22-mile loop of trails. Planners hope light rail transit — long a planned central component of the necklace of trails — will boost the Beltline’s appeal and improve mobility in the city.

But the push for transit on the Beltline also is competing with the transit demands of other parts of the city.

Many Beltline supporters were dismayed earlier this year when MARTA unveiled its initial list of projects for the “More MARTA” program because it included funding for only about one-third of the planned transit loop.

That proposal could change as the MARTA board scrutinizes potential projects in anticipation of voting on a full development list by September.

Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president who has championed completing the light rail loop around the Beltline, said the timing of McGowan’s departure is “not ideal right now.”

“MARTA is going to make a very important decision on whether to put full transit on the Beltline in the next 60 to 90 days and having a strong voice on that is important,” she said.

Chris Norvell, an electrician apprentice for BBH, works at Murphy’s Crossing on the Westside Trail on August 2, 2017, while the area is still under construction. (Rebecca Breyer)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The initial MARTA expansion list drew flak from Beltline supporters because it includes about a half-billion dollars for the Clifton Corridor, a rail line to Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention campus, which were recently annexed and were not part of the city of Atlanta when voters approved the transit tax.

Woolard, who founded Beltline Rail Now! to push for more Beltline transit funding, said the Beltline boasts a strong transportation team.

Robbie Ashe, the chairman of MARTA’s board, downplayed any potential negative impact McGowan’s expected departure could have on transit planning talks.

“Brian’s a great guy, but I think the development of transit on the Beltline will continue unabated by his departure,” Ashe said. “We and [the Beltline] have a deep relationship at the senior staff level. Our assistant general manager for planning came to us from the Beltline and so the relationship is not dependent on any one person.

“We have a robust and cooperative relationship with them on any variety of matters, and I am confident that will continue,” Ashe said.

People walk the Eastside Beltline trail in Atlanta, Georgia, on Monday, April 30, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

McGowan entered service at the Beltline in September and was tasked with tackling the housing affordability problem that’s developed in neighborhoods near the trail network. In the Old Fourth Ward, for instance, home prices and rents jumped after the completion of the Beltline’s Eastside Trail, and speculators have pushed up prices in other areas near future Beltline segments.

Gentrification and spikes in housing costs aren’t happening solely along the Beltline. The vast majority of new apartment development in the city has been geared to the luxury market.

“The two biggest issues now and always have been the issues of housing and transit,” Woolard said.

Prior to running the Beltline, McGowan had a key position in economic development strategy at international law firm Dentons, and he served as chief operating officer of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and as CEO of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm.

McGowan also served in top economic development posts under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and in the Commerce Department under President Barack Obama.

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