Leithead made his remarks during the ARC’s 2012 State of the Region Breakfast held at the Georgia World Congress Center on Friday.
“I will tell you — and no one in this room will be surprised — that since July 31 many of you in this room and virtually everyone I have talked to, they have walked up to me and said, ‘What do we do now?’ They have said, ‘Does it make sense for us to continue to work together as a region?’ They have said, ‘Are we doomed in this region to mediocrity? Did we miss our last big chance? We tried something huge and it failed. Are we doomed to mediocrity?’ And they have asked, ‘Is there any chance? Do we still have a shot at excellence, the excellence that we have come to expect in the Atlanta region?’”
Leithead, who said he was there “to talk to 1,000 of my closest friends,” said he mulled and stressed over those questions.
Lacing his address with quotes from Abraham Lincoln, Leithead proposed a vision of what he’d like to see the region look like 50 years from now. The region would have about 10 million people, have clean and plentiful water and not have a traffic problem, with residents having access to a variety of transportation options.
“I’d like to think that we had some of the best health care in the nation and that all of our citizens would have access to that health care,” he said.
In his vision, all kindergarten to 12th-grade students would have access to quality public schools while seniors would have services that allowed them to preserve their quality of life.
“So let me go back to the questions,” Leithead said. “What do we do now? I’m going to go out on a limb. I suggest that what we do now is for the 1,000 of us that are in this room, and the people that we represent, and the people that we can influence to work together to agree on a collective vision for our region.”
Leithead asked the audience whether it made sense to continue to work together as a region, answering the question by saying working together was mandatory.
“We cannot solve the problems that we are facing today individually as people, individually as cities, individually as counties, or individually at the Atlanta Regional Commission unless all of us commit to work together as a region,” Leithead said. “It’s mandatory that we continue to work together as a region. Are we doomed to mediocrity? Hell no. Mediocrity is not acceptable, not in Atlanta, not in Atlanta, Georgia, not in this region.”
Leithead was followed by Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, who continued with Leithead’s subject about the importance of regionalism.
Federal and state governments are broken, whether it’s dealing with infrastructure, education, advanced research and development or innovation, Katz said.
“We have a federal government that is not only broke, it is broken,” Katz said. “It is a legacy government. It is an anachronistic government, it is a sprawling Byzantine enterprise.”
The time has come for metro Atlanta and other major metropolitan areas in the U.S. to begin reinventing the system, he said.
“That could involve the consolidation of trade agencies into one consolidated agency that wouldn’t only move boxes around in Washington, D.C., but actually relink fundamentally to where trade happens and to where our sectors of production and innovation and logistics actually reside here in our metropolitan areas,” Katz said. “The bottom-line in the next year whoever is elected … the United States federal government is going to scale back in major ways, and this metropolis along with your sister metropolitan areas around the United States need to understand that that is coming and they need to begin to adjust.”
The recession was a wake-up call, Katz said.
“It basically revealed the failure of a growth model that exalted consumption over production, speculation over investment and waste over sustainability, and like all great revolutions it’s been catalyzed by a revelation — cities and metropolitan areas particularly in this country, are essentially on their own,” Katz said. “Mired in partisan division, the federal government appears incapable of taking the actions we need to restructure an economy and maintain those policies over time, so to paraphrase Pogo, ‘we have met the solution and it is us.’ There are no excuses. There is no deus ex machina. The cavalry is not coming. American federalism arms you with the powers, the talent, the permission and in many places the resources to shape your future.”
As one of the world’s great logistic hubs, with the busiest airport in the world moving 92 million passengers and 663,000 metric tons of cargo in 2011, metro Atlanta has its economic engines, Katz said.
Yet the region’s real promise won’t be realized until it moves from a place of transporting goods to other countries to a place that is a center for advanced production and services, he said.
“You need potentially to evolve from port to production, from tourism to technology, from airport to aerospace, and there’s a whole set of steps around trade zones, commercialization of innovation, training of workers that can help,” he said. “The bottom line for this region, if you want to prosper in this century, understand what you trade, who you trade with and then build, develop, implement actualize and export strategy. It is absolutely fundamental to prosperity. We have looked inward in this country for too long for our growth. We now need to look outward.”
Among those in attendance was Michael Paris of east Cobb, CEO of the Council for Quality Growth.
“What I come away with today is understanding how important it is that we work together as a region, and that includes the reaches including Cobb all the way across the entire 10 counties, because if we don’t we’re not going to get where we need to be, whether it’s jobs or education or transportation or water and infrastructure,” Paris said. “Tad’s message was important in helping us remember how important it is to work together.”