ATLANTA -- Brian Leary wants it to be clear: Transportation sales tax funds won't be taken from the suburbs to fund an Atlanta pet project.
With a vote over the tax less than two months away, Leary, the CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., showed off the series of trails, parks and transit projects taking shape along defunct railroad corridors in Atlanta to a group of Gwinnett civic and business leaders.
But as much as Leary supports the proposed regional tax, which would raise $8.5 billion for the 10-county metro Atlanta community, he kept driving home the point that it wasn't the Gwinnett portion of the tax he was interested in.
He pointed out that the city of Atlanta is expected to generate $1 billion in revenue over the 10-year program, and of the $900 million outlined for city projects, $601 million would go to the BeltLine.
"I think it's about just sharing what we are doing," he said of hosting the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce contingent on a tour Friday. "It's not city or counties versus one another. It's about regionalism. ... We wanted to show it's a good project for the area."
Jann Moore, the Gwinnett Chamber's vice president of public policy, said the message was important for leaders to hear.
"It's very unusual for a chamber of commerce to endorse a tax increase, but with a four-to-one return on our investment, we know how important this is," she said of educating the business community about the July 31 referendum.
While a good education system is the No. 1 draw to bring businesses to Gwinnett, traffic and transportation woes are the No. 1 reason they decide against locating here, she said.
With the sales tax money to fund 10.1 miles of transit -- five in the Beltline corridor and the rest traversing through Midtown to connect the two sides of the city -- "Atlanta gets back in the game in a very big way," Leary said of the economic development potential.
In a bus filled with three mayors and others, Leary pointed to new development going up around slivers of poured asphalt, and, in other areas, tracks left covered with grass by years of neglect. In some of Atlanta's proudest neighborhoods, where the BeltLine is bringing a new sense of community, he pointed to graffiti on one wall with a mural on the other side.
Behind the century-old former Sear's building, which served for years as a second City Hall, he talked about the revitalization spurred after leaders decided to create a lush $25 million pocket park instead of a $40 million vault retention facility to solve the problems of a creek flooding the historic building.
The Beltline, Leary said, has caused the community to rally in places like the historic Peoplestown community that was once distrustful after a park was built over a landfill, causing a little girl to catch on fire, sparked by leaking methane gas while she slid down a slide.
Along the 33-mile trail network, which links 45 communities, the city now has its first skatepark, inspired by enthusiasts who once used the abandoned foundation of a burned out house for their sport. And leaders have plans to build a 300-acre scenic overlook on a defunct rock quarry, creating the city's largest park.
"When you see the Beltline, that's what the young people want," Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson said of bringing young professionals to the metro region, and drawing jobs with them.
Amidst the trails, transit and parks, leaders are also working on affordable housing, through rehabbing foreclosed developments and creating a foundation to help those who survived the worst times in their community to be able to afford to stay during its renaissance. And art projects dot the landscape.
It's an ambitious plan, expected to take decades to come to full fruition, although about 10 miles of the loop are already open.
Of the $4 billion in projects, about $1.5 billion is coming from tax-increment financing created through a tax-allocation district approved in 2005. Millions more are coming from private dollars and grants.
If the regional sales tax passes in July, the total will come to more than half the money needed to complete the plans, and the transit project could be built in seven years, leaders said.
According to the studies completed in 2005, the BeltLine is expected to created $20 billion in new economic development and 30,000 permanent jobs.
"This is an important regional project. This is not only important to downtown and Atlanta, but also to us," Moore said to the Gwinnett contingent. "This is the most important initiative we have taken on as a city. ... We are partners regionally."