Q&A: Mayor Kasim Reed on second-term goals, fatherhood, and the future of Turner Field

The mayor, ranked as one of the 55 most powerful Atlantans in our October issue, also discusses his plans for the Peachtree-Pine shelter
Power Kasim Reed
Photograph by Fernando Decillis

After he was photographed for our October cover, Mayor Kasim Reed chatted with Atlanta magazine editor-in-chief Steve Fennessy for a discussion about his second-term goals, the future of Turner Field, how fatherhood changed him from a “selfish” man, and what’s next.

What’s surprised you about the job?
Balancing speed with the appropriate level of deliberation is probably one of the most unexpected parts of the job. You’re trying to make decisions that are both quick and right. My experience is if you don’t have a really strong will, then in government, things tend to float and slide. Because you have a finite amount of time and the people have given you a mandate to execute, there’s a balance. That tension is probably one of the most challenging parts of the job. I came out of the legislature, from a process where collaboration was a big part of being successful. Then I became an executive, as mayor. It’s one of the things that comes up frequently in the press and is misunderstood. People confuse what it takes to achieve significant goals from a timing perspective with a lack of openness and desire to collaborate.

With two-and-a-half years left in your final term, is your sense of urgency greater now?
No, but I want to keep schedule. One of my mentors is Dick Parsons, who ran Time Warner. He always used to emphasize that you’ve got to keep schedule. You execute and execute and execute and when you leave you’ve got a body of work you can talk about in detail.

It’s hard to imagine you leaving office without the Turner Field question resolved.
It’ll be resolved. I think it’s going to be one of the four or five most important developments in the life of the region. You’ll see an investment of between $250 million and $750 million. You’ll see a level of transformation and activity—that was promised with the Centennial Olympic Games—come to pass. The balance we’re going to have to maintain is to make sure the folks who have been part of that community from the very beginning, remain. Because the amount of capital that’s going to flow into that corridor is going to surprise folks. If you look at the renderings for Underground Atlanta, we’ve said a quarter-billion dollars, but I think it’s going to be significantly more than that. We’ve got somewhere between $6 billion and $10 billion in projects that are going to break ground over the next two-and-a-half years. And Turner Field is going to be as close to what we talked about twenty years ago as it’s ever been. I also think it’s going to change Georgia State University forever—if we end up going in that direction, if that’s where the Atlanta Fulton Recreational Authority goes, and if that’s where the community goes. Georgia State has never had a main campus. They’ve never had 77 acres to build around. Georgia State is a sleeping giant. It’s the largest public university in the state of Georgia. This campus, if we go in that direction, is going to give it that feeling. As big and dynamic as Georgia State is now, you don’t feel it, not the way you feel at Georgia Tech or at Emory. For me that will be quite a legacy: To have the kids at Summerhill look onto a college campus instead of a bunch of vacant car lots.

Or instead of a casino?
Instead of a casino. But I will tell you the amount of gaming activity going on—folks looking for parcels of land—is very high right now. I’m the vice chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission. I supported the study that’s being funded by the ARC [to study potential uses for the Turner Field property]. I’m excited about it. And I think we’re going to do something real special. More importantly than what I’m saying is, I think people should look at my track record in this space. Buckhead Atlanta was two holes. Dene Oliver [CEO of OliverMcMillan, the developer of Buckhead Atlanta] and I probably talked every other day. They’re getting ready to invest another $500 million in Buckhead Atlanta. There’s nobody in that deal who’d say it would have happened without us, and without that partnership. Ponce City Market—people said I was crazy, I sold Ponce City Market for $15 million to Jamestown. But I had a million dollars in carrying costs [when the building was city-owned], and a massive eyesore. Ponce City Market is now not only receiving regional attention, it’s receiving national attention. If you talk to Detlev von Platen at Porsche Cars North America, he’ll tell you, “There’s no way I’m near the airport without the relationship with the mayor.” So at some point, track record counts. The work that Tyler Perry is getting ready to do is going to be amazing.

You’ve made it a priority to foster a productive relationship with Governor Deal. You’ll leave office a year before he will. How do you see that relationship carrying on with both your successors, whoever they may be? Is that something they can build on, or is it unique to the two of you?
I hope it will be a model because of the results we’ve been able to generate together. We have sort of a reverse 80/20 rule. We may disagree on 80 percent of things, but on the 20 percent we agree on, we work seamlessly. That really was our basic understanding, because our politics are very different. But the things we work on, we agree 100 percent. Look at what we accomplished, with the deepening of the Savannah Port. That doesn’t happen without both of us. People don’t realize in the metro region, but having that port deepened means the Savannah Port is going to be one of the top three ports in America. It’s going to challenge New York. So my hope is [collaboration between the Atlanta mayor and Georgia governor] is going to be a model and one that can survive politics. If you look at the number of headquarters and business wins, we’ve pitched almost all that business together. It’s very rare you walk into a room these days and it’s all Republicans or all Democrats. When we walk into a room together, it definitely impacts the tone of whatever we’re doing. So I’m hopeful my successor and his successor would mirror it. Look, Governor Deal and I go the ball at the worst time. I got elected in ’09. The data was the flat-out worst in ’09. You name it. 10.5 percent unemployment. We’re at 6 percent today. Not perfect, not at 5.3 where the nation is. But we had a really bad hand. And that provided clarity for both of us. Things were so bad. When there was an opportunity, it was in both of our interests to go and get something done.

I sense there’s also a personal rapport there.
It’s true. I like Governor Deal. We get along, and our wives get along. His wife and Sarah [Reed’s wife] have developed a friendship. When Sarah and I were dating, she was rooting for Sarah to be my fiancée. So that’s nice.

Since becoming a father for the first time last year [Reed’s daughter is named Maria], what changes can you see in yourself?
I’ve lived a very selfish life. I was very goal-oriented. I had very hard five-year plans. I almost invariably placed my career above my relationships. I had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude as it related to relationships. Now I’m just a better person. I care more about what other people think and what they have to say. I always valued women because of my mother, but I now have a much greater sense of issues related to women. I’m much more sensitive about it because I don’t want any glass ceilings on my daughter’s life. So to the extent that I can project and make some changes in my capacity right now, because I’ve been blessed with a platform, you act on it faster. So we did maternity leave. It was right from a policy standpoint, but having a daughter had something to do with it. Having a wife who’s able to be at home, and trying to imagine her going to work two or four weeks after giving birth? That probably hit me harder. So fundamentally, I think I’m a better person. I’m more even. I’m more well-rounded. I’m enjoying my life better. I don’t believe in work-life balance when you do the kinds of job we have; I believe in work-life integration.

What’s the difference?
You have to incorporate the people you care about into your life, as opposed to saying “I’m going to block this time.” So yesterday, Sarah Elizabeth had a meeting on a program she had in Thomasville, and so I had lunch with my daughter. That’s work, but she brought my daughter up, so from 12 to 1 my daughter and I had lunch. I’m going to go to Sam Massell’s wife’s funeral today and Sarah is going to meet me there, and then we’ll eat afterwards. I never would think about that stuff before. I’d be thinking about my schedule. I come out of everything and say, “Tell me what’s next.”

With Maria, do you expect her to be in Atlanta Public Schools?
Yes. Now Sarah and I are going to have a bit of a battle about that because Sarah Elizabeth was at Suzuki from ages 2 to 4 and at Pace after that. So that’s going to be a conversation in our household. But I know where I am. She has not changed her position.

You’ve got some time. But these things sneak up on you.
I don’t think they sneak. I think they roar. We were at Pace for an event and the headmaster said he’d already talked to Sarah about Maria. I come home during the day and I see a stack of documents from Suzuki. [Laughs.] This thing’s rolling.

Let’s talk about Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter. [Reed says he plans to close the shelter by pursuing eminent domain, and to open a fire and police station on the site.] I’m hearing there isn’t overwhelming support on the Council to pursue eminent domain in an effort to close it. How do you plan to deal with that opposition?
Just collaboratively. First of all, Peachtree-Pine doesn’t work. And we haven’t found a case in Georgia where a city was using eminent domain to create a public safety facility where they didn’t prevail. Let’s remember when Ambassador Young built the Georgia Dome. They took fourteen churches through eminent domain. My point is that eminent domain was used to take multiple churches. We’re going to surge resources for homelessness. I haven’t met anybody who believes that Peachtree-Pine is working. The only way that we’d have difficulty is to do nothing. And that’s not what we’re going to do; we’re going to do better. We have a track record. We housed a thousand people in permanent housing since I’ve been mayor. We can walk people to the Imperial Hotel, which houses 90 homeless people. What we’re going to show is the people we have helped are actually reclaiming their lives.

I believe in the politics of the soft and the hard. I don’t ever believe you can just be an ogre. The city is strong enough financially. We have $150 million in the bank. We’ve got the best credit we’ve had in 25 years. We have financial capacity. And the NGOs and philanthropic community have been wanting to get involved in Peachtree-Pine for a long time. And [critics] are wrong on the politics. We’ll have a poll out in a week on how people feel about Peachtree-Pine. But the early data is people want it gone. Because everybody who lives in the city of Atlanta has driven by it. And we all live it. Not only is it not changing the people’s lives, it’s damaging the public park which is across the street, which is also going to be a part of our complaint. We have a public park across the street that is riddled with drug needles and condoms. We clean it and it goes right back to that condition. None of the people around the park can use it. And we’re going to line those people up, to say, “This is a city of Atlanta park and we can’t take our families to it.” A friend of mine called me the other day who’s a political veteran and he said, “Kasim, there’s a reason that Peachtree and Pine has been open for 25 years.” And my response is “What do I have this job for?” So I’ve said it before: The only thing that’s going to prevent me is a judge telling me no. And if a judge tells me no, I would have done everything I could. I think Peachtree-Pine is one of the five most significant impediments to the success of Atlanta. We have filmed it: People come out of Peachtree-Pine. They go panhandle throughout the city. At the end of the day, they walk back into Peachtree-Pine.

We’ve got 48 million visitors and 220,000 people who derive their quality of life through jobs related to the convention industry. I don’t allow people to have one-way conversation with me. Don’t talk about working people with me. Working people are the people who clean up the hotels and get jobs in hotels that they use as ladders to move up. That’s why the convention business is a wonderful business. We have massive support do something different—massive NGO and philanthropic support. So yeah, someone’s going to be on the other side of the conversation with that same old rhetoric, calling me names: hard-hearted and Uncle Tom and all this other stuff they’re trotting out. But they’re not going to be offering to do anything better than what we’re offering.

So your alternative?
My alternative is to build a police department and fire station in one. Between where Peachtree-Pine sits and 15th Street, there are fourteen new developments coming on line. They’re going to need a police station and a fire station. We’re just gonna tee it up and go for it.

And what of the people who are served now by the shelter?
The people who are served now, we’re going to place every single one off them—every single person who wants to be placed. We’re going to do a combination of things. One, I’ll probably go to the capital markets for a bond between $20 and $25 million to build new housing stock. We’ll acquire older buildings and recondition them. But our approach is going to be an approach that focuses on homeless people—20 at a time, 30 at a time—in smaller buildings that are dispersed throughout the city, and done in a first-class way like has been done with the Imperial. We are not going to have any massive facility with homeless people. We are going to have small facilities with wraparound services that really change people’s lives. And the politics will take care of itself. My job approval right now is about 72-73, so we’re going to take it for a spin. I’m going get out and work my butt off to explain to folks. Because I don’t think you can win this argument on a stage talking this out with me. And I’m not gonna get tired of talking.

Will you use that pulpit when it comes to a possible extension of MARTA rail lines?
I am. The next amazing opportunity for MARTA is in Gwinnett. You know that I worked tirelessly to pass the MARTA extension—the biggest expansion of MARTA—last November. I was a key part in making that happen. Now MARTA is financially solvent, which is why the Clayton extension was so important. I think that for Gwinnett to maintain its position of importance in the region, it has to have MARTA. The biggest mover for Gwinnett is going to be NCR. NCR is 4,000 jobs that are moving from Gwinnett to Midtown. One of the three most significant reasons is access to transit, to millennials, and to Georgia Tech. So if I’m Gwinnett, I’m going to want to eliminate that argument.

You said when you were in college was that your goal was to be mayor of Atlanta. Do you wish there weren’t term limits?
No, I don’t. One of my friends is Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His third term, I thought folks were really tough on him. When you do the job the way that I do it, at some point people get fed up with you. It’s kind of mutual, though. [Laughs] I push the ball. I definitely wanted this job for a long time, and I knew the things I was going to do if I ever got it. I had a lot of time to think about it, if ever I had this moment. I knew Mayor Bloomberg when he was mayor, and I don’t think he enjoyed any job more. But I think the last two years on that job were really tough and unfair. To see him on the stage at the end of his third term and have people stand up and unload on him the way they did . . . I’d like to leave waving. I won’t mind putting it down.

What’s next?
I’m going to probably spend some time in the private sector and make sure Sarah Elizabeth and Maria Kristan are ok. I think after that I’m going to spend more time in public life. I love it a lot. But I’ve got different responsibilities now. While I’m young and vibrant, I want to go ahead and secure some seed corn to make sure I can pay for Suzuki and Pace, or wherever.

Do you want to be governor?
I don’t know. Not in ’18. It’s really important that when you run for these jobs that you’re okay, personally. When I became mayor, I was in reasonably good shape. It matters. And so, you look at your wife and daughter, and I’m not going from this public job to another public job. But I’m not being coy about how much I love public service. I think I’ve got a pretty good runway, and I think when we finish up here, we’ll be able to put up our ideas against anybody.

What would the private sector look like for you?
It looks like law, and probably looks like some involvement in private equity.

Be sure to check out our Power issue for profiles of the 55 men and women who run metro Atlanta, on newsstands September 28 and online in mid-October.