Microsoft and the Atlanta Hustle

I wrote about Microsoft moving into Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. This week, they met with the Grove Park Neighborhood Assn. You can find the recorded meeting here. I was lucky enough to sit in, listen, and even converse with other neighbors. The presentation was pretty short, but the questions and communication were thoughtful, vigorous, and clearly only beginning. I will be following this as it moves forward. Microsoft is looking to engage Atlantans. However, I would kindly assert that the Westside will be the one doing the influencing.

I want to be upfront about my perspective. I am directly invested. I reside on the Westside of Atlanta, and my NPU (K) is next door to NPU J, in which the land purchased by Microsoft rests. I am a Realtor®, my husband is our NPU chair, and I have been frustrated with what I would characterize as lack luster representation of elected officials in the area. If you’d like to better understand this, just look for the Facebook post regarding my last blog piece.

The presentation was honestly a bunch of fluff. It was a soft step forward on community engagement, albeit seemingly a bit disingenuous. Microsoft offered no timelines, no budget, and there didn’t even seem to be a clear understanding on Microsoft’s part of who the actual stakeholders were. I was particularly amused when those representing Microsoft asserted they resided in Atlanta and were “local”. The neighborhood (of course) asked for their zipcodes, noting “there’s a big difference between Bankhead and Buckhead”. Do tell.

If you’re not familiar, we are discussing Bankhead, or at least what most folks would refer to as Bankhead. Grove Park is a neighborhood that (like mine) has had some decades of decline yet has new and longer standing residents coming together to focus on the neighborhood’s revitalization. I deeply appreciated Grove Park Neighborhood Association’s community engagement. There was discussion of environmental concerns, tax abatements, property tax freezes, aspirations to engage the AUC, the Douglass cluster, and a wish list that has existed for five to ten years. The GPNA knows what it wants. It is unclear that Microsoft was willing to commit to anything though.

Microsoft’s assertions are that they are focusing now on completing their current project in Atlantic Yards. The completion is projected in July or August of this year. Atlantic Yards is the building they’ve identified will be the location of their Accelerate Program, where they will host educational opportunities to teach city kids to code. It’s also the location where they are partnering with existing community partners like Coca Cola to provide free educational pathways to meaningful job placements within the company. Microsoft representatives asserted that this Grove Park land purchase is only in the beginning stages, where they are just beginning to talk to the community. Microsoft offered absolutely no idea of their timeline or interests. They mainly just sat and listened, offering kind words and promises that amount to “we’ll try” to the audience.

The reality is though, Microsoft has already stocked up on consultants and registered lobbyists, so the aspect of saying they have no timeline or plans seems to assume that GPNA et al are naïve, uninformed, and/or will not have expectations is poorly informed, at best. It seems they took their community engagement lessons from our elected officials, which may be unwise, if not at the very least insulting. The ability to influence in the Westside is to tap into the network of neighbors, not stuffed shirts.

I will take this as the first step that it appears to be and remain hopeful. The Grove Park Neighborhood Assn. is clearly organized and focused. It would seem GPNA is now aware that NPUs across the Westside are unified behind them in support. The Westside neighborhoods are waiting for GPNA’s wish list, and folks here know how to lock arms with their neighbors to support them through challenges. The Westside knows their neighbors were here and supporting them far before anyone from the city has been.

That may be the most important public relations piece for Microsoft to understand. Neighbors support other neighbors here. We are a tightly knit and self-determining set of people. The Westside has long been passed over by City Council and neighbors long ago developed our own economic development that seeks no help from Invest Atlanta nor abatements from the county. When people talk about the hustle being strong in Atlanta, they are implicitly referring to the Westside, where every neighborhood has a candy lady, a rib man, lawncare companies, and women who’ve been feeding their families on the sale of their baked goods for decades. Some carry weight, sure, but everyone understands profit and investing in your neighbor. Long before jobs programs in shiny corporate buildings, the Westside created their own banking, education, and insurance systems because at one time, white corporate folks wouldn’t fool with them.

So if Microsoft is betting on naivety or a smattering of strategic hand outs to make good with the community, they’ve probably come to the wrong neighborhood. From what my neighbors tell me, the Westside has been there and done that, with little changed. The typical corporate approach to “investing in the community” has been to place employees on strategic boards where they can then direct funds through these tax write-offs foundations and orgs. If you missed the memo, The Community Foundation is now headed by Arthur Blank’s previous henchman, Frank Fernandez, so I suspect a fair amount of money will flow between those, if it hasn’t already. In other parts of Georgia I feel we would convey this move as the fox watching the hen house. I’m originally from a more rural setting, I’m uncertain what the urban equivalent is. I do remember distinctly sitting in a meeting with Frank and Presidents of the Junior League of Atlanta a few years back asserting we were a long way away from gentrification. Last year I held an open house in my neighborhood for a house listed at $575,000. We clearly have different definitions of what “a long way” is.

This is the first of many conversations that Microsoft and the Westside shall have. If Microsoft takes community engagement seriously and really listens to GPNA, they will have a bigger multiplier effect than any other corporation in the state. Normally this phrase is specific to economic investment and is measured in dollars. If done with the community in an intentional way, these multiplier effects will have generational multiplier effects, altering not just the Westside or Atlanta, but the state. One of businesses on the Westside is a company that some might characterize as a fashion business. But Atlanta Influences Everything isn’t just fashion, it’s a culture, a history, and a path forward. The faster Microsoft learns this in dealing with the Westside, the farther they will go.

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