Valarie Wilson, Executive Director, BeltLine Partnership

Valarie Wilson, Executive Director, BeltLine Partnership

The largest, most wide-ranging urban redevelopment project currently under way in the United States, the Atlanta BeltLine will combine parks, trails, public transportation, neighborhood revitalization, mixed-use development, and affordable housing along twenty-two miles of railroad tracks encircling the core of the city. Scheduled to be completed in twenty-five years, at a cost of $2.8 billion in public and private funds, the project will incorporate a light-rail transit loop that connects with the city's existing transit system as well as a continuous, connected corridor of parks, twelve hundred acres of new green space, and more than thirty miles of multi-use trails. It will also create 5,600 units of affordable housing, 30,000 full-time jobs, and 48,000 temporary construction jobs.

Valarie Wilson became the first executive director of the BeltLine Partnership, the nonprofit entity charged with raising $60 million and rallying widespread support for the project, in August 2006. Recently, PND spoke with her about the partnership's capital campaign, its efforts to raise public awareness of the project, and the need to address issues of fairness and equity raised by future development around the BeltLine.

Philanthropy News Digest: I would imagine the economic downturn has caused some to consider the BeltLine as more of a "nice to have" than a "need to have" project. How is the current economic environment affecting your plans?

Valarie Wilson: The BeltLine is of crucial importance to the city's long-term success. The project will transform the way we live, work, and play and ensure Atlanta's future vibrancy and vitality, enhancing the growth and development that the city has enjoyed in the last several years.

Some of our funders have told us that they may not have as much money to contribute right now but to keep asking them anyway. They're still committed to the BeltLine and plan to stay the course. Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin is honorary chair of the capital campaign, which has raised $30.1 million from more than forty donors, including lead gifts from many of Atlanta's largest foundations and corporations. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation contributed $8 million toward the development of a large park in the Historic Fourth Ward near the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic District. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the James M. Cox Foundation of Georgia, the Coca-Cola Foundation, the Wachovia Foundation, SunTrust Bank Atlanta, Turner Broadcasting, Georgia Power, and the Home Depot Foundation have all stepped up in a big way. The campaign would not be as successful as it has been were it not for key funders in Atlanta. By the same token, we sought to bring the campaign to an end in 2008, and now we will need to run at least a year longer. The turmoil in the markets has affected everyone.

PND: What do gifts from foundations, corporate sponsors, and individuals actually support?

VW: Most of the $60 million will support the acquisition of land to create parks and the development of trails. In addition, about $7 million will support the operations of the Trust For Public Land, which is involved with land acquisitions; the PATH Foundation, which is building out the trails; and the BeltLine Partnership, which manages the campaign and acts as steward of the vision.

PND: Do you think a twenty-five year timeframe for the project is an advantage or disadvantage in raising funds?

VW: Despite the fact that everybody would love for the BeltLine to happen overnight, there is a level of comfort in knowing that we have a long-range plan that includes smart planning. Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., an affiliate of the Atlanta Development Authority charged with planning and executing the project, is not just looking at redevelopment in the area of housing; it's not just looking at transit; and it's not just looking at parks and green space or economic development. It's taking a holistic approach in which all of these elements come together to create strong, healthy, and vibrant communities in which people can live, work, pray, and play. In the next ten to fifteen years, an estimated 150,000 new residents will move into downtown Atlanta, so smart planning is essential.

PND: Are displacement and loss of affordable housing among your biggest challenges in trying to sell the project?

VW: Residents see the BeltLine as an investment in their communities that has huge potential, but they also worry that their property taxes will go up and they won't be able to remain in their neighborhoods. So we are bringing partners to the table to address their concerns and find a solution that allows us to continue to move forward. We continue to educate the public about the project through our Web site, frequent BeltLine 101 presentations, and free bus tours on Friday and Saturday mornings. The tours are always fully booked, which shows there's a lot of interest in the project. Many people also have expressed their desire to help us accomplish our goals, so we highlight volunteer opportunities on our Web site. The partnership has only four staff people, but we're able to accomplish a lot because of volunteers. They help us in every area — from planning presentations for community festivals to grappling with displacement issues to maintaining our Web site. In our outreach efforts, we also seek out people who might not have access to computers or be as computer literate as others. A year ago, we knocked on more than five thousand doors and passed out information. So we've literally been walking the streets to make sure people know what the BeltLine is.

PND: The BeltLine might strike some as a project that should be supported solely by taxpayer money. How do you convince foundations and other potential donors that it's a project they should support?

VW: Public-private partnerships are what move cities and communities forward, and when both sectors buy into a project, there's no stopping it. Our foundation and corporate sponsors are invested in helping Atlanta grow and become an international city, and they see their private dollars being matched more than adequately by public funds. The private sector is also bringing their business expertise to the table, along with their dollars, in true partnership to advance the project. They also understand what smart growth means, and they want to be a part of making sure it happens. They're definitely on board. One of our corporate funders told me early on that he'd do anything for Mayor Franklin, then added, "We're also doing this because we want healthy, happy employees who live in safe, vibrant communities."

So, you see, we don't have much of a selling job to do.

— Alice Garrard