Opinion: Planting seeds to nourish Westside

Having not long ago celebrated the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his words could not ring more true for me and dozens of other Atlantans in this New Year. Just steps from where Dr. King and his family lived during his final years, and across the street from where Civil Rights leaders met to discuss plans for peaceful protests in the 1960s, I had a dream to open a business that would give back to the community in which it sits. The community sadly has gone through a period of unprecedented poverty and crime, despite its location within the thriving city limits and historical significance. Recently, my dream came true with the opening of Chick-fil-A Vine City.

Vine City is part of Atlanta’s Westside, just west of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and home to Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University – a hub of some of the most elite historically black colleges and universities. It is also where my father, Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, spent his childhood. He lived there in the city’s first public housing development and it is where he formed his entrepreneurial spirit, selling bottled Coca-Cola door-to-door out of a little red wagon.

What once was a thriving part of the city has languished from generations of disinvestment and growth inequity. Within the four Westside neighborhoods, only eight percent of homes are owner-occupied and 36 percent of them are vacant. These neighborhoods have lost 60 percent of their population since 1960, and of remaining residents, 43 percent live below the poverty line. Our neighbors here struggled to find hope amidst limited opportunity.

In 2014, through the vision of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, The Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank and others, the Westside Future Fund (WFF) was established to help revitalize these neighborhoods. I was inspired by the work of the WFF and its partners, and made a commitment to help revitalize the neighborhoods of Atlanta’s Westside. Through the Chick-fil-A Foundation, we have partnered with the Atlanta Police Foundation to open the At-Promise Youth and Community Center, which provides specialized programming for neighborhood youth and young adults. Westside Works has provided job placement for almost 500 local residents. We’ve helped add much-needed green space, which serves double-duty to prevent the flooding that has historically plagued these neighborhoods.

While I’m proud of our progress, there is much more that can be done in my hometown — and in others across the country.

Two years ago, after a discussion with business developer Jerome Russell, we had an audacious idea. Why not plant a restaurant in the middle of the area to offer nourishment through food; add fuel in the form of jobs; and establish brick and mortar that stands as a symbol of commitment to the community. So we set out to do just that, and we did. Not only did “we” as in Chick-fil-A do it, we also had some help from a few friends.

We have a tradition at Chick-fil-A. Each time a restaurant opens, customers are invited to camp outside in the parking lot the night before the store opens to the public. The first 100 customers who camp out are awarded Chick-fil-A meals for one year.

As fate would have it, during this particular grand opening in mid-January, temperatures dropped to below freezing and snow began to fall just hours before the campout was to begin. Nonetheless, our plans to move forward were in place. I invited the mayor and 30 CEOs to join the campout alongside the local residents who had already begun to pitch their tents. The restaurant operator Quincy Springs and I waited to see what would happen.

One by one, they started to arrive. CEOs from The Coca-Cola Co., Cox Enterprises Inc., SunTrust Bank, H.J. Russell and Co., The Home Depot, Georgia Power, Pulte Homes and more. Atlanta’s new mayor and city councilmember for the district also came. So, why did I invite these influential Atlantans to spend the night in a tent alongside me in downtown Atlanta on one of the coldest nights of the year?

I believe that we are all called to help our neighbors, no matter where we live, and especially in their time of need. At the same time, I believe that each of us possesses unique gifts that can be used to help make the world a better place. As business leaders, our relational capital can be used to effect change in communities like the Westside all over the country. We can help forge the connections that help make organizations like the Westside Future Fund a reality all over the country.

I have come to refer to this conviction as “finding your Westside.” Each of us has a Westside in our community. Each of us has our own capacity to make a difference, whether through corporate foundations, mentoring a child after school or volunteering to build a house.

I have always believed that business owners have a moral obligation to give back to the communities that give us so much – that keep us in business. This is more than corporate social responsibility. This is doing right by our neighbors.

Dr. King once said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” A great thing happened last month in the Westside. It is my deep hope that each of us never stops searching for and supporting “our Westside.”

Dan Cathy is chairman and CEO of Chick-fil-A, a member of Atlanta Committee for Progress and sits on the board of trustees for Morehouse College.