This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
MA had a great idea in the late 1990s to create a program to revitalize and stimulate growth and development in Georgia’s downtowns. Downtowns needed to reimagine and reinvent themselves, but there was no program in place to lead such an effort. In 1999, the Georgia Cities Foundation (GCF) was incorporated as a non-profit to serve as a catalyst to assist cities in community development efforts and to enhance underserved downtown areas. For any initiative to be successful, it must have a champion and strong, respected leader—Mike Starr was that for GCF. As the founding president of GCF, his dedicated leadership turned an idea into a success story that transformed Georgia’s cities and downtowns.
Mike had extraordinary vision, unending optimism and great respect among state government, corporate and business leaders. With an accomplished background in the banking industry, he possessed a keen business acumen to lead GCF. In its first year, the foundation received a $9M challenge grant commitment from the Woodruff Foundation. In its second year, the first Heart and Soul Bus Tour was launched visiting 12 cities, and the first downtown loan closed in the third year. From that start, the foundation flourished and continued to expand its programs and the number of downtowns served to become known as the organization for downtown investment and revitalization. In 2008, GCF reached $10M in loans and in 2018, reached $25M in total loans provided through its various programs for downtown projects.
Let’s reflect on GCF’s accomplishments since its inception 20 years ago. The foundation’s $25M in loans resulted in $133.3M in private investment and over 1,500 new jobs created in Georgia’s downtowns. Over 275 new businesses have opened and nearly 300 housing units have resulted from GCF investment. All of this under the leadership of Mike Starr, the one and only president of GCF. I had the privilege of getting to know Mike as Valdosta was one of the cities that maximized the foundation’s loan programs. He and Susan were ever-present at GMA events and their passion, energy and enthusiasm were contagious. Now serving as GMA’s executive director, I had the honor of working with Mike on a frequent basis. I’ve never met a volunteer who gave so much time and commitment to a cause as Mike did to the GCF.
Recently, we lost Mike to a sudden illness. His loss is difficult to accept. It has left a hole in our Foundation, but also in our heart. Just as our downtowns are the heart of our cities, Mike was the heart of our Foundation. As in the name of one of its first programs, Mike was the heart and soul of GCF and the primary reason it flourished with successful projects all over Georgia.
When I think of Mike Starr, I think of words like: visionary, innovator, servant leader and champion. These words are sometimes overused in today’s world but in Mike’s case, they are genuine and accurate. GMA and Georgia’s cities benefitted immeasurably from Mike’s passionate leadership, his relentless commitment to downtown development and revitalization, and his extraordinary vision to always plan and search for the next initiative to further enhance our historic downtowns. We were together in a recent interview to discuss GCF’s 20-year anniversary and Mike stated, “If I had to identify one accomplishment that stands out, I would say that the foundation has brought wide attention to the extraordinary value that vibrant downtowns bring to the strong economic development and the creation of a sense of place in Georgia’s cities.”
I must say if I had to identify one reason for the extraordinary success of the foundation, it would be Mike Starr. Let’s all pause and take a moment to appreciate Mike Starr, the bright star, the selfless servant that changed our state, our cities and our downtowns in a way that will leave a legacy for generations to come.