On July 1, 2013, Paul Morris moved to Atlanta as the new CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc (ABI). He took over from Lisa Gordon, the chief operating officer who had kept the organization afloat for several months, following the departure of Brian Leary in the wake of a spending scandal blown out of proportion by the media.
Morris, 53, arrived from North Carolina, where he had been Deputy Secretary for Transit in that state’s Department of Transportation. An Oregon native trained as a landscape architect, he brought thirty years of varied experience in transportation, urban redevelopment, and public parks. Several years back, his friend Alex Garvin had told him excitedly about working on the BeltLine plans, and Morris had followed the project from afar. “I admired its ambition and holistic thinking,” he said. Now he took over the potentially transformative loop at a crucial time, when the Eastside Trail’s success had raised expectations and hopes, but when future funding remained problematical.
In 2005, BeltLine plans envisioned that the newly created tax allocation district (TAD) would produce about $3 billion for the project over its 25-year lifespan. But until 2011, ABI did not receive its portion from school taxes because of the John Woodham lawsuit, and in the meantime, the Great Recession had severely impacted redevelopment around the BeltLine corridor. Updated projections, made before Morris came on board, predicted that the TAD would instead yield around $1.4 billion over its lifetime – less than half of the original pre-recession estimate. And even that new figure was overly optimistic. It is likely that the TAD will produce only $1 billion or so.
In addition, the TAD contract with the Atlanta Public Schools (APS), which allowed for non-payment for the beginning years, called for the first of many annual fixed payments to begin on Jan. 1, 2013. Lacking sufficient income from the TAD, the city failed to come up with the $1.95 million on time, instead paying it in December, without the $119,000 late interest fee. What’s more, the following two years’ payments were due to go up to $6.75 million each, and the annual amount was to escalate through the ensuing years, so that the final year’s payment in 2025 would be over $16 million. A total of $162.4 million (plus $10 million for a recreation center) was supposed to be paid to APS over the life of the TAD.
Paul Morris inherited this unfortunate contract. Instead of fixed amounts, it would have been logical to pay a percentage of the TAD annual income, but in the rush to get the TAD authorized by the end of 2005, the city had agreed to these terms, and now Morris had to deal with it, although, as he pointed out, ABI did not even exist when the agreement was reached, so that he and ABI were not official parties to the contract. At least school officials said that they were open to renegotiating the agreement with the city, so there was some hope.
In addition to budgetary concerns, Morris quickly had to adjust to the Atlanta way of doing business. When asked for the most important thing he had learned during his first year, he said, “I realized that in Atlanta, personal relationships are enormously important. For all its being one of the top ten cities in the country, it’s really a small town. There may be six million people in the metro Atlanta area, but only 450,000 in the city itself. So because Atlanta is a small-scale city, it’s been important to build solid relationships with a lot of people.”
The other lesson? “The BeltLine isn’t about us here at ABI. This is a project that will only happen if the community at large believes it is theirs. Most Atlantans continue to feel a sense of personal ownership and pride in the BeltLine and want it to succeed. Their biggest concern is how long it’s going to take.”