Job cuts, snowstorms chill 'Hotlanta' image

Self-conscious host had hoped to bask in Super Bowl's glow

January 29, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

This wasn't the way the week was supposed to go for image-conscious Atlanta.

As it prepares to be the host of tomorrow's Super Bowl, Atlanta was supposed to be basking in the national spotlight, lavishing Southern hospitality and Sunbelt climatology on thousands of tourists, fans and reporters.

That's not how it worked out. A pair of freak winter storms have blown through, the latest of which threatens to top the Georgia Dome with snow on game day.

The local newspaper and TV stations were no warmer, trumpeting news of thousands of corporate layoffs that chilled "Hotlanta's" image as a hotbed of economic growth.

"We're still Hotlanta," moaned Zee Bradford, press secretary to Mayor Bill Campbell. "It's just not hot here right now."

Less than a week after an ice storm swept through the area, cutting power and stranding motorists, another front came through, plunging temperatures into the teens and threatening to drop as much as 4 inches of snow. Even before a flake fell, schools and businesses closed yesterday and airlines cut flights just as the city geared up for the big game.

Then there was the week's bad financial news, including thousands of layoffs at Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, as well as at a major Lockheed Martin Corp. factory in suburban Marietta.

That all of this came as the world's attention, and 4,000 journalists, hit town wasn't in keeping with the script drawn up by the city's boosters.

"Like I have been telling people here, the Super Bowl is an event that is going to get you an enormous amount of publicity, both good and bad. You can't be thin-skinned," said Bill Howard, the vice president of marketing of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors' Bureau, which has worked hard to develop Atlanta as a big-event city.

Atlanta was the site of the summer Olympics in 1996 and the Super Bowl in 1994. This summer, baseball's All-Star Game will be held there, followed next year by the PGA Tour Championship.

A bad forecast

Normal temperatures for Atlanta at this time of the year call for highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s. A total of 1 to 2 inches of snow a year is average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Last year at this time, it was 75 degrees and people were wearing shorts, Howard said.

But that was then. The game-day forecast calls for snow and freezing rain -- unusual commodities for a city that escapes most winters with barely a dusting.

"These are not the images we would want to project, but what can you do?" asked Sheldon Wolf, director of museum advancement for the High Museum of Art.

A recent transplant from western Massachusetts, Wolf said that he has been impressed with the energy and hospitality of Atlanta -- even if the winter preparedness is a bit lacking.

`A major international city'

"Image is enormously important to Atlanta. They have for many years tried to position the city as a major international city," Wolf said.

As jarring as the weather were the back-to-back announcements of layoffs, especially at Coke, an Atlanta institution as venerated as Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind." Coke stock dropped 10 percent last week, after the company announced Wednesday that it was shedding 6,000 jobs -- 21 percent of its worldwide work force -- including 2,500 Atlanta. The biggest cutback in Coke history was front-page news in Atlanta.

The next day, Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin said it will consolidate management of its aircraft business in Fort Worth, Texas, adding 830 job cuts to the 2,000 announced for its Marietta operations.

There were even complaints from some hotel operators that Super Bowl bookings had failed to meet projections, and suggestions that fans from St. Louis and Nashville weren't naturally big spenders. But the icy weather was helping to fill rooms downtown with commuters afraid to brave the trek home.

The job losses come at a time when the area's economy was showing signs of slowing, said Mary Kessis, research coordinator for Georgia State University's economic forecasting center.

The Atlanta region added 100,000 jobs last year. It has been among America's fastest-growing regions for a decade and a virtual symbol of the resurgent New South for many years. Its unemployment rate of just more than 3 percent is lower than the nation's.

Choking on its growth

But the economy is beginning to choke on its growth, as traffic congestion and air pollution send some employers elsewhere, Kessis said.

"Overall, we just expect growth to slow. We can't continue at the same pace," Kessis said.

Atlanta, which has cultivated its reputation for rapid growth as a way to attract jobs and residents, would prefer bad news be announced when the world wasn't looking.

"It was a rather unfortunate coincidence," said Furman Bisher, a longtime sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But the city is used to attention, and it will pull through all right, he said.

"We always have the jokers who make fun of our pickups and gun racks and drawls, but we try not to take it too seriously," he said.

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