The Public-Private Connection
By Michelle Valigursky
Rosalind Rubens Newell 81C 86L is very comfortable with change. In fact, she is the chief legal counsel of Invest Atlanta, more formally known as the “Atlanta Development Authority,” that attracts and supports economic development in a city in which population has increased by more than 3.5 million individuals since her professional debut in 1986.
In the more than 28 years she’s been engaged in legal issues arising from land use and economic development and, by extension, governmental affairs, Newell has participated in shaping incredible growth in the city she calls home. As a third year Emory Law student, Newell interned with the City of Atlanta. “I was fascinated by how interesting and diverse the legal issues and cases were,” she recalls.
After clerking in the Superior Court of Fulton County, in 1987 she went to work for the City of Atlanta Law Department, handling litigation and commercial transactions. “We managed real estate acquisitions and sales, civil rights litigation, sexual harassment cases involving city workers, injury lawsuits against the city, street construction, sewer remediation, financing deals for airport expansion, and the purchase of goods and services.“
During her tenure, physical change in Atlanta has been measurable. “These past few decades, we have seen enormous transformation,” she says. With the Olympic Summer Games of 1996, Newell worked on the legal aspects of land acquisition, public safety, and licensing. “The Olympics changed the landscape of our city forever by improving streetscapes and sidewalks in areas adjacent to the performance venues.”
Witnessing such metropolitan growth through her first 19 years of public service work provided Newell with a unique perspective on how cities “need to approach transformation in meaningful, thoughtful ways.” To gain additional perspective, Newell worked with international law firm McKenna Long and Aldridge LLP in private sector/government affairs for eight years. In this role, she “worked on the developer side of major economic development projects such as Atlantic Station.”
Newell’s major projects now include the implementation of redevelpment around the new Atlanta Falcons Stadium which is being built primarily from non-taxpayer funds. “Whether you are a sports lover or not, the new stadium is one of those catalytic projects that will revitalize neighborhoods west of downtown and leave a rich legacy for the next generation. The public contribution represents less than 20% of the $1 billion price tag, and that comes solely from hotel/motel taxes collected in the city.”
Investing in Atlanta
In March 2013, Newell joined Invest Atlanta as its General Counsel. As a quasi-governmental agency, it is “an authority created by the City of Atlanta under Georgia law to carry out the city’s economic development objectives.” Invest Atlanta’s board of directors is comprised of nine members including representatives of the Atlanta City Council, Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County Commission, business and civic leaders and operates under the Chairmanship of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Newell cites the three primary objectives for this public-private entity. “We aim to attract, expand and retain businesses for Atlanta. We are charged with redevelopment, which can include establishing tax allocation districts to fund a portion of that redevelopment activity. These districts are crucial for areas in which no development is currently taking place, or for areas in which blight requires remediation.” Affordable housing, too, is high on the priority list for Invest Atlanta. “We offer housing finance programs to incentivize individuals to live and work within the diverse neighborhoods of the city. This includes housing for our teachers, police officers, hospital workers, and restaurant workers. We also incentivize affordable housing at the developer level.”
Changing Life’s Landscape
As a 16-year-old freshman from New York City, life experience had not prepared Newell to be one of only two African American young women in her dorm. “It was life changing,” she remembers. “I came from a middle class background, but I began a real journey at Emory. I took MARTA everywhere and got to know my new city. Along the way, I learned great lessons from some excellent mentors.” While studying political science at Emory, Newell took an undergraduate internship with the State Bar of Georgia that set her on the path of a legal career. She cites June Green 79L, Gloria Jackson Wright 79L, Viola Sellers Drew 79L, and Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Yvette Miller as key influencers in her life. These lawyers encouraged her to think about law school. Newell is grateful that “The mentoring from these women as well as the scholarship I received helped me to succeed.”
In her first job out of law school, Newell clerked for the late Judge William Alexander, a leader in civil rights. While at the city, former City Attorney Marva Jones Brooks and (now Fulton County Superior Court Judge) Alford J. Dempsey, Jr. “taught me how to practice law.” These “supportive mentors had confidence in me and taught me to be proactive and to set high standards for my own performance as an attorney.”
Though her heart may be in public service, her passion extends to the well-being of the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home for Children, Inc., where she serves on the Board of Trustees. Founded in 1888 by a former slave and originally an orphanage, Carrie Steele-Pitts Home occupies a 25-acre campus in northwest Atlanta. Children live in cottages on the grounds, supervised by house parents. “It is personally important for me to use my talents and resources for a public service purpose. My association with Carrie Steele-Pitts has been very fulfilling and I believe I have contributed to the improvement of children’s lives in Atlanta. It also enriches my life to be involved in the lives of others,” she says.
Communicating with Legislators
“Find your community interest. This could be land use, promoting your neighborhood schools or taking part in a small business incubator. In Atlanta, there is a Neighborhood Planning Units (NPU) for your home or business,” she suggests. To take part in the process of legislation, “visit the Secretary of State’s website to determine who serves on your city council, county commission, and who represents you at the state and national level. Learn about the issues and get involved”
Newell recommends certain guidelines to follow when communicating with legislators. “Don’t rant and keep your emotions in check. A well-written, well-reasoned email or letter will always be given appropriate consideration. Clearly identify the issue of concern. State your position succinctly. Tell your elected official what action you wish he or she would take.” In addition, “Don’t forget to send congratulatory correspondence as well. Our legislators also need to know they’re doing a good job.”
So what else should an individual know about dealing with legislators? Newell advises everyone to understand when their state legislators meet. “This is the time period during which state laws can change,” she says. “It’s perhaps even more important to attend your local city council, school board, and county commission meetings. The decisions made at these will affect your own community, and perhaps even your neighborhood. Stay informed.”
Editor’s Note: Rosalind Rubens Newell is a multi-talented woman who shares her expertise with friends, family, and community. She is one of the Brown Sugar Stitchers Quilters who makes quilts for family and friends, as well as for the children of the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home. Her artistic work always hangs in her office and has been on display at public libraries in DeKalb County and the City of Atlanta.