A New Source of Leadership: When Philanthropists Step Forward

As former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young has noted, corporate leadership of cities is at an all-time low. Reasons: Business consolidations swallowed many of the locally owned banks and newspapers that once called the shots in cities, and globalization has so broadened the horizons of surviving companies that they've lost interest in their hometowns. "The world has gotten too complex for the kind of CEO leadership that built this town," Young said of Atlanta recently.

But nature — and power — abhor vacuums, so as CEOs step back from leadership, others are stepping forward. One new group: philanthropists. You can see this in Atlanta, where Bernard Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot, is using his fortune to build a gigantic aquarium downtown. The idea, Marcus says, is to create an attraction so compelling that convention-goers will stay an extra day in Atlanta to take it in. Marcus' former partner at Home Depot, Arthur Blank, used his money to buy the local NFL franchise, the Falcons, promote the arts and serve as chamber of commerce chairman, even though he's no longer actively in business.

An even better example of philanthropy as leadership, though, might be found 35 miles due east of Atlanta in the charming town of Covington. There, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described in a recent article, a local foundation is almost single-handedly turning the town into a showplace for new urbanism. In a big city, the $19 million (in assets) Arnold Fund wouldn't carry much weight. (The nation's largest foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle, has more than $26 billion in assets.) But in a town of 13,000, the Arnold Fund is a giant. And it's a giant with a vision: It wants to preserve the small-town flavor of its hometown, even as Covington is drawn into the Atlanta suburbs, and it sees new urbanism as the way to do that.

At every opportunity, then, the Arnold Fund is promoting new-urbanist thinking in Covington, from bringing in planning gurus like Andres Duany and underwriting a local preservation center to actually developing its own new-urbanist subdivision. "We want to create a place that survives us," explained the foundation's chairman. And where did the Arnold Fund's money come from? From the estate of Robert O. and Florence Turner Arnold, who grew up in Covington, made a fortune from their investments and textile mills and died without heirs. The foundation is run by relatives, most of whom have lived in Covington all their lives. 

Footnote: If you saw Covington, you might find it strangely familiar. That's because it served as filming locations for two Southern-as-sweet-tea television series, "The Dukes of Hazard" and "In the Heat of the Night." Posted 4/1/2005