More Than a Game Tom Cousins chose an unlikely centerpiece--a golf course--to revive an Atlanta neighborhood. Is his project a model for other cities?
By Patricia Sellers

(FORTUNE Magazine) – You'd be a fool to bet that Tom Cousins can shoot his age--he's 69 years old, with a handicap that's "five and deteriorating" and a back so out of whack that he hobbles down the fairways. Still, he plays. He plays for the pleasure, of course, and for the camaraderie. But he has another reason. He calls it "golf with a purpose."

The purpose is the rehabilitation of one of Atlanta's most blighted neighborhoods. This summer, Cousins, the CEO of publicly held Cousins Properties and king of Atlanta real estate, will see to the final touches on his ambitious project: a 400-acre, $125 million development known as East Lake. With ingenuity, a government grant, and the generosity of his big-name golfing buddies, he has built 542 new homes, spearheading the transformation of a notorious crime zone into what urban experts say is one of the most impressive mixed-income communities in America.

Cousins started on the project in 1993 when he bought a dilapidated country club where the golf legend Bobby Jones (1902-71) learned to play. Cousins restored East Lake Country Club to its onetime luster. Then he signed up corporate members at $275,000 a pop; $200,000 of that goes straight toward the nonprofit organization that is revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood--so it's tax-deductible for the donor. GE is a member. So are 82 other companies, including Home Depot, American Express, AT&T, and Coca-Cola. Credit Suisse First Boston chief John Mack, whom Cousins calls "my No. 1 ambassador," recruited J.P. Morgan Chase, Pfizer, Emerson Electric, and Morgan Stanley (where he used to be president). Says Jack Nicklaus, another avid supporter: "I first played East Lake when I turned pro and didn't see it again until my son Michael was at Georgia Tech. It had become such a tough area that there might be a shooting, or you never knew what, across the street. What Tom did is unbelievable."

Unbelievable, yes, especially after you learn how Cousins, who built CNN Center and other Atlanta landmarks, struggled for seven years to accomplish his task. Can-do bosses such as Home Depot's Bernie Marcus told Cousins he was crazy for trying. Moreover, the very folks Cousins aimed to help, East Lake's tenants, all poor, many living on welfare, wanted nothing to do with the wealthy developer. Suspecting he wanted to poach their property and line his own pockets, they even sued to block the project, though a judge quickly tossed out the case. Says Cousins' friend, Hugh McColl Jr., the recently retired CEO of Bank of America: "People are naturally suspicious of rich and powerful business people--especially developers and bankers."

So why did Cousins stay in the game? "Some people talk about 'enlightened self-interest'--the idea that if you make the community a better place to live, it'll be good for business," says Cousins, "but we're not doing all this to improve business." The Bible, he points out, instructs the rich to give their wealth to the less lucky. Says his friend Vernon Jordan: "This all comes from a deeply held, but not advertised, Christian belief: To whom much is given, much shall be required. That is deep within him."


East Lake Meadows used to be such a war zone that it was known as "Little Vietnam." In 1994 the Atlanta police department registered 508 felonies--rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, homicides--at the public-housing project. Around that time Cousins hatched his plan. One day he read a New York Times op-ed penned by a criminal justice professor who made the case that if you improve the quality of life in a neighborhood, you have a good chance of reducing crime as well. Cousins talked about the theory with his police department friends, and they confirmed that East Lake could benefit from his help. Then he put his money and clout to work.

Cousins joined up with the Atlanta Housing Authority, which happened to be sitting on a $33.5 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in 1997 blighted East Lake Meadows was bulldozed. In its place rose a gated, manicured, mixed-income community of 542 townhouses and garden apartments, where half the residents receive public housing subsidies and the other half pay full-market rents ranging from $815 to $1,305. The assumption is that these "strategic neighbors," as Cousins calls them, will hold steady jobs, create neighborhood stability, and serve as informal role models. Cousins didn't come up with the idea of mixed-income communities, but his was one of the first built. The concept has become gospel in the world of urban redevelopment over the past several years. "You don't change a community just by building nice houses," says Cousins. "You have to provide people with a new way of life."

Creating a new neighborhood meant destroying an existing one and disrupting lives. The project displaced 450 families, and in the four years it took to rebuild East Lake most settled elsewhere. But for the 75 families who came back, it was a totally different world. The old East Lake Meadows had almost no services. The new Villages of East Lake includes a pool, tennis courts, a public golf course, job training, an elementary school, a day-care center, and a soon-to-be-opened YMCA that will be the largest in Atlanta. Crime is down 94% since 1994. The Drew Charter School, which is publicly funded and privately run, opened last year, but so far it's scoring good grades. Whereas last fall 19% of its students read at or above grade level, 43% were doing so by this past spring. Property values in the surrounding neighborhoods have more than doubled. Says Cousins: "It's like throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the ripples."


Seven years ago, Lucia Clark moved to what was then East Lake Meadows with her son Tony, then 8, and her small twin boys and daughter. "I didn't have an income," says Clark, 34. "We slept on the floor, and mostly we ate peanut butter and crackers." It wasn't much, but it was better than the homeless shelter she had moved from. So when Cousins came along proposing to tear down the apartments, Clark, like many East Lake residents, was suspicious of his motives; the rehab idea seemed like a rich white man's ploy to destroy her black community. "His plan just wasn't believable," says Clark. She joined up with tenant-association leader Eva Davis, who fought the Cousins contingent so vociferously that Jimmy Carter, who weighed in on the brouhaha, teased that he'd rather negotiate Middle East peace than try to cut a deal with her. "They wanted to tell us what to do. Hell, no!" says Davis, now 65.

But both Davis and Clark had a change of heart. Today Davis lives in a tidy three-bedroom duplex at the Villages of East Lake. On her coffee table, she keeps framed photos of herself with Jimmy Carter and Tiger Woods, two of her heroes. Another hero is her onetime adversary: "I think Mr. Cousins still got in his heart that I don't like him, but he's wrong. Dead wrong."

Clark, for her part, attended classes, provided free by the East Lake Community Foundation, to learn to manage her family budget, balance her checkbook, and find a job. Now she works as a teacher's assistant. Her son Tony, meanwhile, joined East Lake's junior golf academy. Now 15, he caddies at the country club and earns about $50 a day. He's saving his money in hopes of going to the University of Georgia. Tony's mom marvels at what golf has done for him. "When they play golf, they need to tuck in their shirts and be on time and carry themselves right," she says. "Golf's like showing respect for yourself and for other people."

So life is better for the Clarks. Lucia married her live-in boyfriend, and the family lives in a four-bedroom townhouse on the edge of East Lake's public Charlie Yates golf course. When they moved into their new home three years ago, Tony was amazed: "I thought you had to have lots of money to live on a golf course," he says. Not everything is to his liking. To keep crime down, East Lake imposes rigid rules on its tenants. Tony used to hang out till all hours with his friends. Now he has to abide by a curfew for children and teens--they have to go in when the streetlights go on. "Security will tell us we have to go in the house because they're afraid we might break a window or knock in a door." Does this bother him? "Yes, it does," he says. He doesn't like the lost freedom or the assumption that he and his friends are up to no good. But he remembers the gunfire in the old East Lake Meadows and minds the clock.


In 1945, when he was 13, Cousins remembers witnessing "the greatest golf shot I ever saw on TV or anywhere." Tom and his cousin Charlie Harrison popped over to the East Lake course and tucked themselves behind the 13th green just as Bobby Jones was about to hit his approach shot. A giant oak guarded the left side of the green, and the ball, situated far to the left, had to hook around the tree to reach the pin 125 yards away. Using a nine-iron or a wedge, with no practice swing, Jones hooked the ball just as he needed to. It landed a foot from the cup.

The shot lived in Cousins' memory, and after he bought the club for $4.5 million in 1993, Cousins hired renowned golf-course architect Rees Jones to renovate the course to the original Donald Ross design.

The legend of East Lake helps bring in money for the community. Says Vernon Jordan, who helped Cousins recruit Sara Lee and Xerox as East Lake Club members: "It's a good way to be a corporate citizen without having to do much"--except take a day off and play a round on hallowed grounds. Besides putting $200,000 of every member's fee into the foundation, Cousins funnels club profits there as well. By hosting two PGA tour championships, the club has generated an additional $1 million for the community. In August, East Lake is hosting the U.S. Amateur championship. A natural, since Bobby Jones won that tournament five times.

Tom Cousins is now on a broader mission: to sell the East Lake model in Chicago and Dallas and San Diego and every other city where there are families like the Clarks. As you read this, Cousins is probably making a pitch to a CEO or flying a mayor to Atlanta for a round at East Lake. He tells them, "For no charge, I'll help you do this in your town." It's a tough sell. While Hugh McColl has designs on Cousins-like redevelopments in Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis, most people say the same thing: "Other cities need a Tom Cousins...but there's only one Tom Cousins."

If you ever meet Tom Cousins, and if you happened to know Bobby Jones, you'll surely notice the similarities: They are modest, courtly, and grandly ambitious Southern men. But there is one key difference: Bobby Jones walked away from golf at age 28, after 13 major championships in eight years and the Grand Slam in 1930. Jones said he could give it up because golf is nothing more than a game. Not so for Tom Cousins. Because for him, it's much, much more.