The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Metro Atlanta Speaks Survey Provides Regional Policy Makers with Citizen Input to Create a Vision for Tomorrow IT ALL BEGINS WITH A VISION Created by the Georgia General Assembly in 1947, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) was the first publicly supported multi-county planning commission in the United States. Since then, it has served as the planning and intergovernmental coordination agency for the 10-county metro Atlanta region comprised of Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties, as well as the 70 cities within those counties. At the helm of the commission, which is dedicated to improving the lifestyles of metro Atlanta residents and acting as a conduit between local governments, businesses, civic groups and citizens, is Douglas R. Hooker, P.E., the ARC’s Executive Director. Hooker, and the 180-person ARC team, utilize a number of key initiatives to gain input from stakeholders across the region to help shape policy and clarify a vision of Atlanta’s future that supports the realization of healthy, livable communities, world-class infrastructure and growth as a leading international city in a competitive, global economy. METRO ATLANTA SPEAKS SURVEY First launched in 2013, the Metro Atlanta Speaks survey is designed to measure and track residents’ perceptions of key policy and quality of life issues over time. In the survey’s debut run, the economy was the top concern of most residents, followed closely by transportation/public transit. Those categories flipped in 2014, as transportation leapfrogged over the economy to become the top concern of most residents. More than nine out of 10 metro Atlanta residents believe that transit is important to the region and nearly half of the residents surveyed favor expanding transit options over expanding road capacity. With the results of the 2015 Metro Atlanta Speaks survey, Hooker believes that people will be surprised to learn that the economy has fallen to third in the list of concerns, particularly in the face of recent upsets on Wall Street and questions about whether the Federal Reserve might raise interest rates. Instead, transportation maintains its hold on the top spot, with crime taking second place in the minds of metro Atlanta citizens. Since the surveys’ inception, perceptions of local school systems and overall quality of life were all relatively positive. Two-thirds of all residents believe that metro Atlanta is a good or excellent place to live. “I think elected officials will be surprised to learn that traffic is still the top concern for many, even aft er the passage of the historic House Bill 170,” said Hooker. “Traffic is a pressing part of our reality and our daily lives. On the other hand, I believe they’ll be pleasantly surprised by people’s understanding of the need to be better stewards of water usage, as well as the satisfaction with the number of public parks – even though Atlanta is behind the nation in park acreage per capita. I myself was surprised by how robustly and diversely many of these statistics held up throughout the region. It reaffirms the power of this annual perception tool – knowledge really is power.” Of course, the point of the survey is not just to gather information. The ARC, local governments and the state use this information to shape policy decisions and to determine what key areas of concern to target in the coming year. For example, Hooker credits the data gleaned from last year’s survey in providing support for the Joint Transportation Funding Committee’s efforts, which ultimately led to passage of House Bill 170, and for giving legislators the confidence to feel more comfortable advocating for transit. ECONOMIC OUTLOOK FOR THE REGION “It took some time, but our region is finding its footing aft er the Great Recession,” says Hooker. “Thanks to our collective efforts, the region has made great strides and is back on a positive economic track. We’re adding jobs and residents at a faster clip than at any time since the economic crisis.” Currently, the region’s GDP is $325 billion, which is larger than the GDP of all but 31 countries. Hooker cites major economic development wins for the region, including the relocation of major operations centers of corporations such as State Farm, Mercedes Benz and Veritiv, as further evidence of the vitality of the metro area’s economic health. In addition, Hooker notes that high-tech startups are “finding the Atlanta region a more welcoming place to test new and innovative ideas. And, they are attracting the capital they need in order to continue growing here.” There was a 54 percent increase in patents issued in the region from 2000-2013 – the fourth largest increase in the United States. Being a registered Professional Engineer, Hooker offers some statistics that support the contention that the state of the region’s economy is positive. For example, the regions’ unemployment rate continues to fall, currently at around 5.5 percent, or about half of what it was five years ago. Driving that was the fact that the region added nearly 80,000 jobs in the past year, which is the fourth-highest metro job growth in the nation. In addition, the Atlanta region added approximately 60,000 people over the past year. That’s the largest population increase since 2008 and more proof of a growing economy. The economic outlook also holds the promise of multiple large-scale construction projects, particularly by the Georgia Department of Transportation as a result of the revenue generated from the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (House Bill 170) and the fact that this past year included a significant increase in building permits. Another factor is the announcement of a number of film and television productions throughout the region, which contribute to 68,254 jobs in the “creative industries” across the region. Resident perceptions from the Metro Atlanta Speaks survey also support the positive outlook. In the 2015 survey, less than 15 percent of citizens had a negative economic outlook, compared to 31 percent in 2013. WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD? “In my view, Atlanta is a city and a region still brimming with opportunity and promise,” Hooker stated. “It is a mosaic of many diverse communities that make a beautiful picture collectively. However, we have serious challenges that will erode our promise, if we do not get serious about addressing them: a true regional transit network, housing affordability and significantly improved education and workforce systems.” Hooker believes that regionwide improvement in these three sectors is critical to maintaining our status as “a strong, competitive, attractive region.” Of particular concern to our future workforce is the need for more engineers and STEM-related professionals. Hooker notes that “Georgia has always done a great job of producing well-trained engineers,” and that “the young engineers we are developing now are still well-trained, but there are not enough of them. We need to produce thousands more over the next 10 years, including more engineers and technologists with soft ware development and programming knowledge and skills.” Hooker also believes that the areas of cyber security, health information technology, financial information technology, biomedical engineering, digital media and gaming will be job growth sectors for the region that will require more employees with STEM training. Another challenge for the region’s economic competiveness relating to workforce is the availability of lifestyle options that the knowledge-based, creative class and millennial employees of the future (and present) will demand. “There is a lot of desire for people to be in urban, walkable settings,” said Hooker. Since 2009, 60 percent of the region’s real estate investment has been made in walkable, urban centers. “To that end, it’s vital that we expand transit – not just in the city proper, but also in other growing communities. As we focus on transit, we’ll need to place an emphasis on where it goes and connectivity. Most people don’t want to travel a mile on foot to get to and from transit. That’s a very tangible way to address a key perception among local residents related to quality of life. Our Livable Centers Initiative seeks to build a stronger connection between housing and all modes of transportation.” The ARC forecasts that the Atlanta region’s population will hit 8 million by 2040, an increase of 2.5 million people (which is the equivalent to moving the entire current population of the metro Charlotte region into metro Atlanta!). Hooker acknowledges that in that span, “the Atlanta region will change in ways that we can barely imagine.” He also believes that the collective strength of the region will allow us to “tackle our greatest challenges and keep the Atlanta region competitive with our peers across the country,” only if we are planning for the future and acting on those plans in a unified, regional manner. “Our peers are not standing still,” he notes, “and neither can we.” To learn more about ARC, visit www.atlantaregional.com. SPOTLIGHT ON: DOUGLAS R. HOOKER, P.E. As Executive Director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, Hooker oversees regional planning programs in the wideranging areas of transportation, community development, land use, water and natural resources, aging services, workforce development, as well as arts and culture for his agency’s 10-county, 70-city Atlanta region. But when it comes to his focus on overall quality of life within this sprawling community in which he serves, he doesn’t merely “talk the talk” – he “walks the walk.” Hooker is a proud graduate of Leadership Atlanta, Leadership Georgia, the Regional Leadership Institute and the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership. He was also a cofounder, board member and former Chairman of the Civic League for Regional Atlanta. Additionally, he serves on the boards for the Council for Quality Growth, the Atlanta Symphony, CHRIS Kids Advisory, the Georgia Tech Advisory Board and others. His former board memberships include the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Emory University Board of Visitors, the Regional Business Coalition, Georgians for Passenger Rail, the Atlanta Opera, Georgia Conservancy, Park Pride and the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership, among others. He was also appointed by former Governor Roy Barnes to serve on the inaugural board of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. His diverse career comprises a number of public sector and private sector organizations, including the City of Atlanta’s Department of Public Works (where he led the agency through the 1996 Olympic Games), the State Road & Tollway Authority (SRTA), Georgia Power, Bio-Lab, Inc. and Atkins (formerly PBS&J). He has worked as a design engineer, engineering project manager, finance and administrative director and a business development and marketing executive – implementing a number of important regional projects in the areas of energy, education, transportation, transit and water. “All of these companies and organizations did a lot to prepare me for my current role at ARC – particularly my work with the City of Atlanta’s Department of Public Works,” explained Hooker. “It exposed me to policymaking at the local level, as well as how to build a network of relationships.” This proud Georgia Tech alum holds a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering degree and a Master of Science (in Technology & Science Policy) degree. He also boasts a Master of Business Administration from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. Happily married to Patrise Perkins-Hooker for the last 36 years, Hooker enjoys playing in a community band, composing music, reading and spending time with his grandchildren in between his very important work for ARC and multiple board meetings.
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