In May 2014, the U. S. Department of Transportation unexpectedly imposed a tight deadline on private fund-raising for the $43 million Westside Trail. Unless Atlanta could come up with at least $10 million in private donations by July, the feds threatened to cancel the promised $18 million TIGER grant. Atlanta business movers-and-shakers scrambled to prove that, when the pressure was on, they could deliver. Charlie Shufeldt, who headed the BeltLine Partnership board, John Somerhalder, chair of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., and Ray Weeks met to strategize. They wanted Mayor Kasim Reed to make a strong personal plea for funds to business leaders on the Atlanta Committee for Progress, an elite mayoral advisory group.
They asked Jim Kennedy of the Cox Foundation to jump-start the campaign, as he had done for the Eastside Trail. He astonished them by pledging $5 million, half of the needed funds. They couldn’t go back to the Woodruff Foundation, because it had already pledged money to push the Eastside Trail south to Memorial Drive, still undone. They needed big philanthropic donors, so they turned to corporate Atlanta. “We got the old gang back together again,” Shufeldt said. Weeks pledged $200,000. Phil Kent, recently retired CEO of Turner Broadcasting, and Herman Russell (the self-made African-American developer and real estate mogul, who died later that year), also agreed to make donations. The BeltLine also got substantial gifts from Kaiser Permanente and Wells Fargo. The biggest surprise came when Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines, called out of the blue to say that he and his wife Susan would contribute $1 million personally.
“People want to give to successful things,” Weeks observed. “It’s a matter of getting people to see we’re all going to do it.” The “we” referred to Atlanta’s power brokers, all of whom knew one another, often through the Atlanta Committee for Progress. They rubbed shoulders at the Capital City Club. Most donors were white, contributing to a trail that would go through an overwhelmingly black part of town. Within three months, they raised $12.5 million and saved the Westside Trail. The balance of the money would come from state, regional, and local funding.
The Astra Corporation, which had built the Eastside Trail, won the bid for the Westside Trail, breaking ground in November 2014. The workers soon found that the westside neighborhoods were rougher than the eastside. One day a car carrying a black man bleeding from a gunshot wound, with guns visible in the back seat, begged to traverse a road block to get to the hospital. The construction workers also ran into unforeseen problems, such as oozing water at the southern end and a huge concrete tunnel MARTA had left underground at the northern end. Originally planned to be completed by the end of 2016, the trail opening would be delayed by at least a year.
Many long-time residents remained skeptical that the Westside Trail would make much difference and had no plans to use it. Young black realtor Nia Knowles, a West End resident, explained that “they heard change is coming but still see the crime and stink of foreclosure and have kind of lost faith.” She herself worried that the BeltLine would bring inflated prices. “I may be out-priced in an area that I helped to build.”