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Invest Atlanta leaders dish on when city should, shouldn’t give public incentives to developers

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“Now that it’s clear growth is happening steadily in our urban core, the philosophy needs to shift”

An aerial rendering of the massive development shows massive modern buildings bordering Historic Fourth Ward Park.
A massive project on the Beltline’s Eastside Trail, for which the developer sought $22.5 million in tax incentives.
New City Properties

Determining when it’s appropriate to hand over public incentives to help propel private developments in Atlanta has become a contentious issue.

A recent summit helped bring that issue front-and-center, while formulating ideas on how it might be resolved.

Atlanta developers have argued that nudges like tax breaks can support projects that might otherwise have trouble being realized, resulting in economic stimuli and jobs in areas that are traditionally underserved.

Opponents of the practice, however, have contended that in Atlanta’s thriving, current real estate market, few reasons are viable for offering tax abatements to big developers, as projects would likely materialize with or without public help.

Additionally, the logic goes, if a private investor doesn’t have to pay, say, property taxes for projects, someone—the Atlanta Public Schools system, for instance—ultimately feels the impact.

So last month, urbanist advocacy group ThreadATL hosted a panel discussion featuring a roster of current and former board members of the city’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta, to hash out when it’s appropriate to offer public incentives to private companies.

Investing in Atlanta

Atlanta Tax Incentives: A Public Panel Discussion

Posted by Thread ATL on Thursday, February 13, 2020

ThreadATL members have historically been critical about Invest Atlanta and other government entities providing public support for private projects, although they agree there’s a time and place for doing so.

Think “small-scale, neighborhood-focused [projects],” a blog post from July reads. “Maybe some of the facade improvement grants?”

The Downtown Facade Improvement Grant fund has helped primp aging buildings in and around downtown, a small revitalization effort that can pay dividends for non-affluent communities, such as the historic Sweet Auburn district.

In a recent newsletter recapping the panel discusison, ThreadATL praised Invest Atlanta board member Fred Smith for “openly questioning the public benefits of big incentives for projects like the Gulch and the Georgia Aquarium expansion. “Smith is reminding Atlanta that it’s not enough to spur investment for its own sake; we have to consider what Atlantans are getting in the way of benefits.”

The panel also hashed out the need to better define the urbanism goals of the city, which are now being boiled down into the new Intergovernmental Agreement between the city and Invest Atlanta.

On a similar front, the panel discussed how Invest Atlanta should better focus on equity and inclusion when determining if and how to support private developments.

Essentially, the question is: How can officials ensure that locals or minority- or women-run businesses are incorporated into projects that could ultimately impact them?

The city and Invest Atlanta are working with nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners to address such questions.

For years, Invest Atlanta has been too lax in deciding which projects it extended money to, ThreadATL bloggers asserted.

“Now that it’s clear growth is happening steadily in our urban core, the philosophy needs to shift from creating the biggest incentive package to instead minimizing the incentive and clearly stating what the public is getting in return,” the newsletter says.

The agency, in ThreadATL’s estimation, should hone in on policies that mandate workforce development and the creation and preservation of affordable housing, as well as those that help combat displacement and other side-effects of inevitable gentrification.

Plus, as the panel discussed, Fulton County has also been known to provide incentives packages within the City of Atlanta, which gives developers a better chance of securing help that, some argue, they don’t need.

In response, Georgia House Reps. David Dreyer and Chuck Martin are crafting legislation that would establish Invest Atlanta as the only provider of incentives within city limits.