For 25 years the historic Sears building stood vacant just north of downtown Atlanta. It was a symbol of the city as an abandoned, unsafe place. This year the nine-story structure is scheduled to open as the Ponce City Market, a residential and commercial project that embodies the city in renaissance. Atlanta’s population has increased 6.6 percent since 2010, more than twice the growth in the rest of Georgia. Many of the arrivals are young professionals drawn by companies moving back into the city, including Coca-Cola (KO) and AT&T (T). Jobs and investment used to head for the suburbs. Not anymore. “Businesses are moving in a nontraditional direction,” says Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat. “It’s not one or two. It’s decision after decision.”
Changing demographics may help ease the racial and political tensions between the capital and the rest of the state. The Atlanta region is home to half the state’s population and accounts for 71 percent of its economy. But conservative rural and suburban lawmakers have long looked to starve Atlanta of funding for infrastructure and squash its liberal social policies. Georgians outside the city sometimes refer to Atlantans as “Yankees,” says George Hooks, a Democrat from a rural district in southern Georgia who retired from the state Senate in 2011. “They don’t understand how peaches are grown, or peanuts.”
In January 2005, when Republicans took control of Georgia’s state government after more than a century of Democratic dominance, one of their first orders of business was a proposal to nullify an Atlanta ordinance supporting domestic benefits for gay and lesbian couples. Lawmakers then stopped the city from raising wages paid by city contractors. Since then they have tried repeatedly—without success—to wrest control of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world’s busiest airport, from the city.
Of the 5.5 million people living in the 28-county Atlanta region, only 447,841 reside in the city itself, which is 54 percent black, according to U.S. Census data. Sixty percent of Georgia’s 10 million residents are white, and the majority vote Republican. White flight from the city decades ago helped fuel the sprawl in surrounding counties, whose residents have consistently opposed efforts to revive Atlanta’s urban core.
Nowhere is that more visible than in the politics of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. Its rail lines don’t go beyond the border of the two counties that make up the city of Atlanta—Fulton and DeKalb—because white suburbanites refused to let the system, known as Marta, extend outside the city. “Metro Atlanta racialized public transit,” says Christopher Leinberger, an expert in urban development at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “People said it stood for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”
Marta is the only major U.S. transit system with no dedicated state funding, yet Georgia’s legislature still requires it to submit a budget for review every year and restricts how it spends its revenue. Suburban voters killed a 2012 regional tax referendum that would have provided about $4 billion to widen roads in their own communities in part because it allocated a similar amount to city transit improvements. Mayor Reed says that defeat was “the most recent, most powerful example of the challenge of being a blue city inside a red state.”
Reed, a former state legislator, is working to bridge the divide with state lawmakers. Earlier this year he proved instrumental in helping Republican Governor Nathan Deal successfully lobby the Obama administration to support a port expansion in Savannah, Ga. The historic animosity between the city and the rest of the state may continue to ease as the city changes. When Ponce City Market opens, one of its tenants will be Athenahealth (ATHN), a medical-technology company that is moving from Alpharetta, 26 miles away, bringing 177 jobs and adding 500 more. “The Atlanta hate talk has definitely diminished,” says City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, though.”