Behind Woodruff Foundation's Big Give to Transform Atlanta into a “New Media” Incubator

In a textbook example of a private-public partnership committed to revitalize an urban area while boosting economic development, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation gave $22.8 million to Georgia State University to create a media production center for education, research and entrepreneurship, and partnerships with the Georgia film, music, games, and arts industries.

If it sounds familiar, it should. The funding model in Atlanta greatly resembles that of the work being done just up I-95 in Baltimore, where a $5 million grant from Stavros Niarchos Foundation to John Hopkins University seeks to transform Charm City into a filmmaking mecca.

Both case studies contain some common ingredients. So let's look at the key players in Atlanta.

First, there's Georgia State University. We'll call it the talent pipeline. You can't develop industries without one. Secondly, of course, there's the funder. The Woodruff Foundation remains a pivotal actor in the Atlanta philanthropic scene, so its involvement here should come as no surprise.

What's most important is what it hopes to accomplish with its gift. After all, foundations expect a return on their investments, and Woodruff's expectations exceed those of your run-of-the-mill urban renewal effort. They're aiming to create a kind of urban "Silicon Alley" for new media companies in the heart of the New South.

Central to this effort is the renovation of a three-story structure formerly owned by SunTrust Bank, complemented by "major facility and streetscape improvements to the surrounding areas." (As we've noted in the past, Woodruff can be particularly savvy when it comes to its real estate investments in Atlanta.)

It's a perfect example of renovating what A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress calls the "adaptive reuse of downtown buildings." Central Atlanta Progress is another key player here; we'll call them the "civic-minded middlemen."

David Cheshier, chair of the Department of Communication of George State, said, "This gift will enable us to launch new programs focused on media arts entrepreneurship, enterprises where artistic vision can build Georgia’s creative culture and expand the infrastructure for sustained economic development."

Groups all over the country are following this template. The Baltimore case study, for example, contains all the same inputs — a university talent incubator, a deep-pocketed foundation, a civic-oriented development blueprint called "Homewood Community Partners Initiative," and an ambitious plan to restore downtown buildings.

For more analysis on the Woodruff Foundation, check out IP's take on their work in the areas of charter schools and conservation.