Will a leader please stand up? 

An official overseeing the revitalization of Atlanta's downtown, Kenneth D. Bleakly Jr., heads a group of 22 candidates to replace longtime Downtown Development Board executive director Tom Kohler, one of the most influential officials in city government, who is retiring in February.

Since 1996, Bleakly has been president of Centennial Olympic Park Area Inc., a non-profit organization responsible for the development of 100 acres in Atlanta's core downtown area cleared for the 1996 Olympics.

The success of COPA, as it's known, has been marginal at best. Most of Bleakly's tenure has been spent securing special taxing designations, forming incentive packages and planning special events such as the city's Fourth of July celebration. A hotel and some condos are the first installment of what proposes to be more than $1 billion in development. Centennial Park hopes to be Atlanta's answer to New York's Central Park.

Despite the uncertainties in Atlanta, Bleakly has a number of the qualifications city officials seek in Kohler's replacement. He has attracted nearly $800 million in planned development around Centennial Park, including commitments from residential developers and a 1 million-square-foot business park still in the development stages. He is familiar with tax increment financing, the same source of funding used here by the Community Redevelopment Agency, the DDB's sister agency, which also falls under Kohler's purview.

Bleakly is no stranger to political egos or media scrutiny. He has been quoted some 80 times in such publications as the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and USA Today. Bleakly also has a connection to Orlando. He graduated from Rollins College in 1972, before completing a master's degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University.

A seven-member search committee will review the 22 résumés this week. It will meet Dec. 12 to decide which candidates will be short-listed for telephone interviews.

Kohler's position is among the three highest-profile jobs in city government, below the mayor and chief administrative officer. Kohler, who has directed the DDB for 22 years, oversees two semi-autonomous agencies. The Community Redevelopment Agency is a taxing district responsible for millions of dollars often allotted to businesses in the form of subsidies. The Downtown Development Board oversees city-sponsored events such as the Saturday-morning Farmers' Market.

But even businesses not looking for a handout might find themselves under the DDB's control. The agency, through the Development Review Committee, oversees the designs of buildings throughout downtown, creating an extra level of bureaucracy that often frustrates business owners. Everything from building heights to interior design are fair game for the committee's alteration. People still joke about the length of time it took the review committee to debate the Sheraton Four Points Hotel's plan to paint its handrails a cobalt blue color. The hotel lost its case. The reason: Committee members feared the color would draw attention away from Lake Eola.

What's more, Kohler is often the city official who must defend the use of subsidies or wrangle with business owners who want additional favors from the city. Consequently, the search committee seeks an executive who is politically savvy and thick-skinned.

"He should have a flame-retardant suit," joked Roy B. Dalton, president and CEO of Dalton Hotel Corporation and a search-committee member.

"And `he should` know how to deal with the posse of fools," added District 5 Commissioner Daisy Lynum, invoking a term she often uses to describe constituents who don't agree with her.

Besides Bleakly, two other candidates are most likely to draw the search committee's interest.

Thomas D. Saunders has a master's degree in public affairs and urban and regional planning from Princeton University, as well as a law degree from Stanford. As Gainesville's community- development director, Saunders is familiar with Florida growth issues as well as managing a staff of 54 and a $6 million budget. He has taught urban and regional studies at the University of Maryland.

Another interesting prospect is Scott D. Adams, executive director of the Jefferson Economic Development and Port District Commission in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans. Adams currently oversees economic development but has been involved in downtown revitalization in Jacksonville, Memphis and Fort Lauderdale. He received a bachelor's degree in urban planning from Michigan State University and has lectured at several universities, including Florida State.

The remaining candidates range from older, experienced professionals to recent college grads. Seven candidates are from Florida, with most of those from metro Orlando. For example, Dawn St. Clair has been the Community Redevelopment Agency director for Altamonte Springs since 1994. But her background is in marketing, not public planning.

If the search committee takes the home-grown route, it might zero in on Frank Billingsley, currently Orlando's director of permitting services. Billingsley worked for the DDB in the mid-1990s as a business development manager and served for two years as the director of the mayor's business assistance team.

At the search committee's first meeting on Nov. 28, speculation was limited because committee members had yet to receive any résumés. Lynum said she might prefer someone who doesn't come with years of experience and baggage. "We may want a fresh start, a fresh perspective, something new," she said.

Committee members said they hope that one candidate will stick out by the time telephone interviews are completed, probably by the middle of January.

Orange County Commissioner Mary Johnson, who sits on the DDB advisory board as well as the search committee, said she was encouraged by what she experienced during interviews to find a new executive for United Arts of Central Florida, a nonprofit, regional fund-raising group. Johnson hopes a candidate emerges the way Margot Knight did in that search this fall.

"She was wonderful," Johnson said. "She could tell us things. I wish we could find a shining star like that."

If the committee wants more candidates, chairman Pat Christiansen said it could re-advertise the job and ask Kohler to stay another month. But he said the feedback he has received tells him that the announcement for Kohler's replacement in three national trade publications has reached enough local people.

"I've received a bunch of calls from people not connected with downtown type projects," said Christiansen, an attorney with the Akerman, Senterfitt & Eidson law firm. "It was amazing. For whatever reason, word is out."


More by William Dean Hinton


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