ATLANTA -- Georgia's capital city may be the only place that ever turned into a booming metropolis by keeping itself out of the news. Business leaders in Atlanta are fretting that could change because of a bitter racial battle over the Confederate battle emblem.
Through decades of civil rights turbulence, Atlanta was both the cradle of the movement and untouched by race riots. While the nation watched violent showdowns in Alabama and Mississippi, Atlanta leaders enticed Yankees and their businesses with a simple message: We're the city that's too busy to hate.
But a simmering unrest over the state flag - and the election of an outsider governor who promised to let people decide if they want a return to the old flag and its racially divisive Confederate symbol - has some business leaders worried the South's biggest city is in store for an embarrassing, drawn-out fight that could cost the state billions.
Already reeling from thousands of job losses in the industries that made it big - tourism and transportation - businesses are skittish that the fight will scare away conventions and new business.
"We could lose an extreme amount of business over this," said Bill Howard, vice president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Board. "I don't think it's exaggerating to call it a crisis."
The debate over Georgia's flag is more than a public relations pickle for Atlanta businesses. The rebel banner that won't go away is a signal to some leaders that Atlanta's recipe for success is in serious danger.
Longtime residents of the city know all about The Atlanta Way. It's the cozy partnership between industry and government, a marriage designed to portray Atlanta as progressive.
In 1959, a reporter for Newsweek magazine asked Mayor William Hartsfield how Atlanta managed to avoid racial strife.
"We roll a red carpet out for every damn Yankee who comes in here with two strong hands and some money," Hartsfield said.
The plan worked for decades, helping Atlanta build a reputation for Southern hospitality minus the redneckedness.
"There was an effort to keep the peace that was very much business-related," said Ronald Bayor, a Georgia Tech history professor.
Thanks in part to its progressive reputation, Atlanta won bragging rights for more than just The Coca-Cola Co. Coke was joined by Delta Air Lines, UPS and four major-league sports teams. Homegrown businesses including Citizens Trust Co. and The Home Depot grew to national prominence.
In 1948, Atlanta was about the same size as Birmingham, Ala. By the turn of the century, Atlanta was three times bigger, with a metro population bursting past 4 million.
Sam Massell, Atlanta's mayor in the early 1970s, remembers the city's efforts to avoid Birmingham's reputation.
"You'd see them on TV over there, and it was good ol' boys talking. We decided when the cameras were in Atlanta we wanted to see the brightest, most progressive leadership talking," Massell said.
Business didn't always get along with Georgia governors and city mayors, but The Atlanta Way held for decades, culminating in the 1996 Summer Olympics.
A few years later, when the NAACP singled South Carolina out for boycotts because the Confederate flag flew on its Capitol, business leaders in Atlanta were worried. They asked state officials for help before a flag boycott could spread to Georgia, where the Confederate cross dominated the flag.
Many whites say it symbolizes Georgia's history, but many blacks and others say it is an offensive mark of slavery.
Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes ramrodded a new flag through the Legislature in less than a week in 2001. In exchange, the business community helped Barnes rake in the biggest re-election campaign pile in the history of Georgia governors.
It was classic Atlanta Way politics. But it didn't work.
Barnes was upset last November by a poorly funded unknown, Republican Sonny Perdue of rural middle Georgia. Part of Perdue's appeal was his promise to let people vote on the flag. He became the first Republican Georgia governor in 130 years.
"I don't think anybody believed Perdue would win," said Atlanta Labor Council president Charlie Flemming. "And when he did win, I don't think business thought he would actually go through with a flag referendum. ... Nobody sees any good coming out of this."
Perdue wants a nonbinding referendum on the flag in March. He has called the statewide poll a chance for "racial reconciliation."
The business community is less optimistic. One by one, chambers of commerce and labor groups have warned of disastrous consequences if the Confederate banner is revived. Civil rights groups have threatened boycotts.
"Business does not migrate toward controversy," said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which announced last week that it opposes a return to the Confederate-themed flag.
Others say the timing could not be worse. Howard, the vice president of the conventions board, predicted disaster. Atlanta is vulnerable, he said, because more cities are competing for major sports events and trade shows.
"A lot of cities are anxious to take our business and exploit any weakness we might have," Howard said. "You better believe that a Confederate flag would be considered a weakness most places in the world."
Business leaders fear that message isn't getting through to the governor. So they're pleading with the public to support the new flag. It's a plea broader than the old Atlanta Way.
"I don't think the majority of Georgia has any interest in insulting our guests," Howard said. "That's not the Southern way."
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