Best in Real Estate: Sam Massell made MARTA the linchpin of regional mobility (Video) – Atlanta Business Chronicle

At the state Capitol, Georgia lawmakers continue exploring ideas to form a regional transit system, with even the speaker of the House recently calling it a necessity for quality of life and economic development.

This news makes former Atlanta mayor and current president of the Buckhead Coalition Sam Massell smile.

“Now the whole state is talking about mobility, and I’m so happy about it,” Massell said from his office in Buckhead’s Tower Place, which broke ground just before his only term as Atlanta’s mayor ended in 1974.

Atlanta may have no bigger, nor more prescient, advocate for expanding its transit system than Massell, this year’s recipient of Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Best in Atlanta Real Estate Visionary Award.

MARTA, the transit authority now seen by most Atlanta business leaders as integral to attracting jobs, investment, new mixed-use development, and possibly even Amazon’s second North American headquarters, might not exist except for Massell’s efforts almost 50 years ago.

First, he got the legislature to OK a sales tax referendum to fund MARTA, after gaining support from then- Gov. Jimmy Carter.

“You talk about lobbying — that was a major effort,” said Massell, whose walls are lined with so many news clippings from his work as both mayor and Buckhead business leader that visitors learn history by osmosis.

Victory in the legislature was just step one.

Next, he had to convince voters to adopt a 1-cent sales tax to fund the system, which would pay for the first MARTA buses and eventually commuter trains. He went into local churches and climbed on city buses, with chalk and a blackboard, to illustrate the idea. He also hopped into a helicopter and flew over Atlanta afternoon traffic jams shouting to commuters below, “If you want to get out of this mess, vote yes.”

“This being the Bible Belt, people thought God was telling them what to do,” Massell said.

MARTA was first proposed as a system consisting of DeKalb, Fulton, Clayton, Gwinnett and Cobb counties. In 1971, voters in Fulton and DeKalb passed the sales tax increase that funded MARTA.

Four years later, construction on the transit system began. Rail service started in 1979.

Today, momentum is gathering for more expansion.

In Alpharetta, on the northern edge of Fulton County, residents have scheduled meetings to discuss mass transit alternatives. To some, that may be a surprise, given how in the early days the suburbs didn’t embrace MARTA.

Massell, though, always saw perpetual expansion as MARTA’s future.

“When people would ask me when is it going to be finished, I’d say never,” he said.

Although it took longer than Massell expected, MARTA and its stations have become critical investment and economic development tools. In fact, the ability to locate offices near MARTA stations is now on the checklist for many companies expanding operations in metro Atlanta.

Consider projects such as State Farm’s massive new campus along Hammond Drive next to the Dunwoody MARTA station, or NCR Corp. and other companies moving to Midtown’s Tech Square. The same thing is happening in Buckhead, where Massell has been a top recruiter of new business since his term as mayor ended in 1974. For example, PulteGroup put its headquarters next to a Buckhead MARTA station.

“If MARTA didn’t exist, Atlanta would not be landing the companies it is today,” said Larry Gellerstedt, president of Cousins Properties Inc., which relocated its headquarters to Buckhead last year, becoming the neighborhood’s largest office landlord.

Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, said Massell doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

“MARTA doesn’t happen without him,” said Durrett, who has been impressed by Massell’s ability to build unlikely allegiances.

For example, in the battle to gain votes for MARTA, he won the endorsement from the Domestic Workers Union and the Chamber of Commerce, a feat Massell called unprecedented.

“I hope people can learn about the amazing impact he’s had and the courage it took for him to take the positions he did,” Durrett said.

Keith Parker, the former MARTA CEO who oversaw its 2014 expansion to Clayton and bolstered its perception as a major attraction for corporate relocations, said Massell remains just as important for the system’s growth today.

For instance, last year, the city of Atlanta raised its sales tax for MARTA to 1.5 percent to fund more expansion. Massell helped make that possible by introducing Parker, who arrived in 2012, to Atlanta business leaders.

MARTA had just run through several CEOs before Parker came on board, something Parker declined to talk about. But, he did say given the climate for MARTA at the time, talking about expansion may have been a challenge.

So, Massell’s offer left him “pleasantly surprised.”

“I could have been thrown to the wolves, but instead he calls me and said, ‘Let’s strategize.’”

Parker added, “Sam’s always been a true champion for MARTA, from the very beginning, even when that might have been unpopular for other elected officials.”

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