ATLANTA — Bobbing and weaving around pedestrians, Tim Jones and Jim Burgess raced through busy streets toward a downtown subway station. The men, part of a new private downtown security force, had received a radio report of a "man down."
They found a bearded man lying on the pavement, bleeding from the head, apparently after a seizure. While Jones radioed for an ambulance, Burgess, a certified medical technician, struggled into a pair of rubber gloves and checked the man's condition.
The homeless man received quick medical care thanks to Atlanta's "A-Force" ambassadors.
Part security force, part social workers, part public relations tool, the distinctively attired 55-member A-Force is but one initiative by Atlanta business and civic leaders intent on turning downtown into an inviting destination for suburbanites and tourists.
As is happening more frequently in cities beset with shrinking resources, the business community here is providing services that once were considered the responsibility of government. Taking their cue from Philadelphia, Dallas, New York and other cities that have seen a drop in crime thanks in part to private initiatives, downtown property owners have formed a special tax district to pay for private security.
Simultaneously, business executives have launched a drive to spur downtown housing and are working to change laws to help clear the streets of panhandlers and petty thieves. Some specifics of their plans have proved controversial, but the overall goal of using the excitement generated by the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to leverage the transformation of downtown has found wide support.
City government has not vanished from the picture, but business leaders undoubtedly have taken the lead, commissioning studies and drafting plans designed to turn downtown's cold, sterile and--to some--intimidating streetscape into a warm and thriving environment.
Central Atlanta Progress, the downtown business association behind the initiatives, unveiled its master plan in March. The centerpiece is the creation of residential and entertainment districts near a privately financed 21-acre park now under construction. The name for the neighborhood is COPA, for Centennial Olympic Park Area.
If that sounds a little like New York's Soho, it's no accident. The aim is to create an area comparable to Soho, Washington's Georgetown or the Commons in Boston, said Sam A. Williams, Central Atlanta Progress president.
"These cities have not only full office buildings and hotels, they have a street buzz also with pedestrians day and night," Williams said. "Atlanta can have that atmosphere too. Downtown can become a 24-hour city."
The plan also calls for capitalizing on the city's new identification with sports to create a 50-acre "sports business park," a still-vague scheme to foster sports-related business development downtown.
If the plan has a chance at all, it is because of the Olympics.
An estimated $2 billion in construction tied to the Games, which begin July 19, is underway. These are both public and private projects that include not only stadiums and swimming pools, but also parks and other features designed to make downtown more inviting.
Newly installed in a refurbished downtown park, the sculpture "Atlanta From the Ashes" is supposed to commemorate the rebuilding of the city after the Civil War. But, with all of the cranes, rubble and hard hats nearby, the statue might as well represent the make-over in progress as dozens of projects race to finish in time for the Games.
Among the projects are 750 new downtown housing units, much of them in an older area that had fallen into decline. More is on the way: The business group is matching developers with property owners in an attempt to realize its plan.
Mayor Bill Campbell sees the efforts as complementing the city's struggling attempts at revitalization, part of which revolves around a financially troubled entertainment district. He is assembling a committee of business leaders and academics that he hopes will help continue the development after the Games end.
"We'll roll up our sleeves just as we prepared for the Olympics," he said recently. But the post-Olympics Atlanta already is starting to take shape.
For Mack Reese, an investor in several downtown real estate projects, the changes are bringing new life to a neglected part of the central city.
The southern portion of downtown has a historic architectural character and human proportions, but it has been overshadowed by the glitzy hotels and the fortress-like high-rises farther north. Except for employees at nearby government buildings, white-collar workers have little reason to go there.
Ironically, it was the abandonment of the area by high-powered law firms and banks that made the rebirth possible. "Property values have gone down," said Reese. "It's gotten to the point where people can afford to come in and buy [buildings] and convert them to lofts so that people can live down there."