GreenRoom: July 2010

Each year more than 100 Metro Atlanta leaders travel to another city for the At-lanta Regional Commission’s annual LINK (Leadership Involvement Networking Knowledge) trip. Three and a half days are loaded with seminars and forums on topics common to Atlanta and the host city.

In May LINK visited Phoenix, Ariz., right before a controversial bill was signed into state law, giving local law enforcement in Arizona the right to enforce federal immigration rules – also allowing officers to ask for documentation without cause. Conse-quently, immigration overshadowed everything else we were supposed to learn about transit, higher education and water supply. It was an enriching, educational and emotional experience.

The sessions are intense, but the “downtime” (usually 10 minutes or less) between sessions is of equal benefit, giving LINK leaders a chance to connect on more personal, less political terms, off their own turf. It is a chance to see the forest and the trees, as it were.

While there weren’t many trees in Arizona, Phoenix was bright and beautiful, and there were several initiatives that have benefited the state both environmentally and economically.

The first was the Valley Metro (VM), a light rail line linking Phoenix to Tempe, the nearby home of Arizona State University, one of the country’s largest public institutions with more than 66,000 students. The Downtown Phoenix Partnership first worked with ASU to bring campuses downtown, and the results are stunning: a beautiful, walkable district of cool boutiques, restaurants and venues that draws 150,000 transit riders into Phoenix on a weekend night.

The city of Tempe has also built the Tempe Center for the Arts, a first-rate park and performing arts center along a canal built by Hohokam Indians that is adjacent to the VM station. Leaders engaged church ministers and music teachers along with big corporate donors in a compelling grassroots effort to build the park/center/station, in that order. The VM continues out to more suburbs, serving a commuter function when not being used as a “party train.”

One can’t help but think of Atlanta and Athens, and how Portland successfully used its light rail system to connect downtown to the Portland State University campus.

Valley Metro reinvigorated conversation about the BeltLine and streetcar projects in Atlanta, and the Brain Train to Athens, which would be a huge shot in the arm to the region’s research community.

It took four tries for Valley Metro to get voter approval. But it has made billions in return for a route of just four miles. It also created a hybrid partnership among the education, downtown development and transit/transportation communities that has yielded exciting results.

Phoenix has plans to become a solar energy hub. Local utility APS will invest half a billion dollars into AZ Sun to convert most of Arizona’s power use to solar. Chinese company Suntech plans to invest $1.8 billion and hire nearly 12,000 people to manufacture solar technology. Some LINK leaders said Georgia should be more aggressive in promoting solar; we may not have as much sun as Phoenix, but we have as much as Germany, which Phoenix is looking to oust as the solar capital of the world.

The water session was similarly inspiring. The surprisingly water-rich Arizona signed a compact with seven other states in the Colorado River Basin in 2007 to manage its resources, create a surplus supply and import water from other sources. If they can do it with seven, we can do it with two – Alabama and Florida.

Surprisingly, the water leaders said the key to negotiating the compact was a good sense of humor. It was not the craziest thing I heard all week.

Phoenix leaders trashed their legislature. Anger over the immigration bill was palpable and economically justifiable. Obviously this is a tourist state, and from what I could see, most of the culture was Latino-American. State sales taxes further depend upon a service industry that in turn depends on immigrant workers. The bill’s author, Sen. Russell Pearce, was almost indifferent to more humane concerns.

Still, it was only a few years ago that the Arizona legislature footed $400 million of the $1.8 billion public-private effort to bring ASU housing into downtown Phoenix.

Sometimes another city’s problems can make us grateful for what we have, or still have a chance to have, back here in Georgia.

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