A city without a vision is a city in trouble. An event (like the Olympics) can for a time unify the efforts of a city. But an event is different from a vision. An event is momentary. A vision endures. An event may flow from a vision. But a vision is the source of energy. "Without a vision, the people perish," warned the prophet of old. Atlanta is a city in search of a vision. Atlanta has no lack of leaders. But it has a current shortage of visionary leaders. Atlanta is rich with creative ideas. But it lacks an orienting vision. It used to be that our clergy were the statesmen that spoke of vision for the city. But no more. The religious leaders that remain downtown are largely consumed by the daunting task of managing their aging institutions. Preservation, not vision, is their challenge.
Public officials have sometimes served as visionaries. These are rare persons of conviction and courage whose vision transcends their personal ambition. But such leaders are scarce today. Public opinion polls determine the "convictions" of our political leaders and electability decides their causes.
From whence comes the vision for a great city - a city whose heart beats with 24 hour-a-day vitality, whose center is peopled with neighbors rightly related, whose core is as alive with community as it is with commerce? From whence comes the vision for a city whose soul is healthy? Who has the stature to champion such a vision today?
I know of no discipline that is producing statesman-quality visionaries today, save perhaps one. There is one unlikely profession that demands the distinctive combination of qualities and skills that is also required for farsighted urban leadership. Imagination, risk-taking ability, political awareness, market savvy, communication skill and intuition - these are essential attributes of successful real estate developers. And these are the very attributes needed to create and deliver a vision of such magnitude for the city. Though controversy often swirls around this group, I am convinced that the new vision that is needed in our city will most likely come through faith-motivated real estate developers!
I have witnessed in cities, both at home and abroad, the powerful impact that a single developer can have on a city. Charlie Shaw is transforming the blighted Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago by converting the old Sears headquarters into a thriving urban community. Leslie Viljoen, one of Capetown's most successful developers, is creating an ambitious mixed-income, racially blended community that is a model for a new South Africa. And there is our own Tom Cousins who is redefining public housing by his East Lake project. These are all men whose faith has moved them to employ their considerable talents and resources to attack daunting urban challenges. Their high-risk ventures are literally reshaping history.
Why is God using real estate developers as His vision-bearers today? Think about it. The real estate developer is one who conceives of things that do not exist and causes them to become reality. It is the real estate developer who can capture a vision in a believable package, convince lenders, investors, politicians and communities that it is in everyone's best interest, assemble the array of players and structures required for its execution, and then orchestrate the creation of a whole new landscape. He has a nose for opportunity, instincts for what will and will not work, and an irrepressible optimism for a mission he believes in. He understands politics and the dynamics of power, and knows the value of partnerships and coalitions. He is tenacious, driven, both charming and bullish, fiercely competitive and at the same time genuinely conciliatory. Risk-taking is his life; his forte is forging into uncharted territory.
The successful real estate developer who is also faith-motivated is uniquely equipped to be a visionary. He understands the difference between human effort and divine intervention. An internal spiritual compass guides him amidst the tensions between the allure of an exciting mission and a commitment to sound business sense. He knows, too, that the bottom line cannot always be calculated in monetary gain. And when his passion, imagination and faith are captured by an inspiring vision, the developer has the perfect combination of gifts to enable him to rise to the occasion and become a visionary leader.
Atlanta is a city unusually blest in having a sizeable cadre of highly capable, faith-motivated real estate developers. Imagine for a moment the impact upon our city if our spiritually minded developers came together around the vision of a new heart for Atlanta. Everyone knows the strategic importance for residential development around Centennial Olympic Park. The rebirth of the downtown centre into a safe, vibrant community with vested neighbors, charming restaurants and a full range of goods and services is more than a delightful fantasy. There is broad and sober consensus that the future of our city may actually be dependent on this. Based on profitability, it may make little sense. But to a group of faith-motivated developers with a vision, this could be a challenge worthy of their best. It could become the well-spring of new spiritual life for the city.
Christian developers are also churchmen who realize the significance of the church in the city. They know that urban churches, who often speak for the poor but who offer few permanent solutions for their plight, can be enlisted to champion the cause of reneighboring the downtown community. Under the banner of "a just and caring community" and with a mission to establish a wholly new parish, the church could come alive with relevant missionary fire. Chapels in each new development, parish chaplains building community and promoting neighborly relationships - this is exciting new territory for the urban church. And developers, more so than anyone else, have the influence and capacity to bring the church to the table.
From whence comes the vision for a great city whose heart is strong and whose soul is healthy? The leaders with visionary capacity are among us. Will they rise to the occasion?