The Atlanta Beltline is taking a beating in the court of public opinion.
Late last month, Beltline creator, Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity resigned from the board of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership (ABP) — the 10-year-old non-profit created to promote the vision of the Atlanta Beltline.
Gravel posted the resignation letter on his website which states, “we feel compelled to concentrate our efforts more directly on making sure that the Atlanta Beltline lives up to its promise and potential, and specifically, that its investments and supporting policies become more intentional about who they will benefit.”
Both Gravel and Smith said they feel the organization is no longer focused on making sure the Beltline offers affordability and economic opportunity for all residents. The project, they said, has lost its grassroots voice.
The accusation seemed particularly poignant when it surfaced a few days later that the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI) asked a local woman to stop using BeltLine in the name of a public Facebook page called “Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine.”
Just over a year ago, Jessie Fream was inspired by the immensely popular “Humans of New York,” to post photos and words of the folks she encountered on her regular trips to the Beltline.
In a message sent via Facebook, ABI representatives asked Fream to stop using Beltline or BeltLine on her page. Fream isn’t sure what to do. Her last post is dated Oct. 10, a day after a post in which she expressed her confusion about the future of the page.
The page currently has 2,400 followers and the comments were supportive of Fream’s efforts with some offering suggestions about how she might handle the situation with ABI.
Other members of the public are concerned that this is just another example of how the stewards of the BeltLine are losing touch with the general public.
“They want to control how the public perceives (the Beltline), but the public owns the Beltline,” said Dan Whisenhunt, creator of Decaturish and newly-launched AtlantaLoop. “They spend a lot of time and money bullying members of the public who are doing nothing more than trying to promote their trail,” he said.
Earlier this year, Whisenhunt came up with the idea to create a blog that focused on the Beltline and the surrounding area. He spent a few hundred dollars registering three domains that had variations of the word Beltline. In less than a week, he received a cease and desist letter and email from ABI’s legal team.
“Of course, I started freaking out because I think these people are going to sue me,” said Whisenhunt. After a bit of research, he discovered they had already prevailed against a realtor who tried to register a domain using the word Beltline.
So this summer, Whisenhunt went for a meeting with ABI to see if they could find a solution.
“They kept saying, ‘We want to make sure it doesn’t look like our website. You can’t use our logo,'” said Whisenhunt, who assured them that he understood and had no intention of doing either. But the conversation didn’t end there. “I almost felt like their real objective was to control what I was saying about them,” he said.
In the end, Whisenhunt transferred the domains to ABI (he wasn’t compensated) and took the extra courtesy of asking them how they felt about his using AtlantaLoop as the domain instead. ABI eventually gave him the all clear with the request that he add the following disclaimer to website:
“Neither this website nor its operator are affiliated with, licensed, authorized, sponsored by or otherwise related to Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (“ABI”), or to the Atlanta BeltLine project, or any ATLANTA BELTLINE® or BELTLINE® products or services. The operator of this website is solely responsible for the opinions, statements, representations, images, text and other content. BELTLINE® and ATLANTA BELTLINE® are registered trademarks of ABI.”
When Whisenhunt heard that Fream was facing a similar situation with her Facebook page, he was concerned enough to reach out.
He could understand ABI going after for-profit organizations, but going after an individual who is just posting about people enjoying the trail and not making a profit seemed to defy logic, he said. Why not just ask Fream to use the same disclaimer on her FB page, he wondered.
For now, Whisenhunt and Fream are collaborating and offering Fream’s Beltline content as the irreverently named “Humans of the Glorified Sidewalk” on AtlantaLoop in part to draw attention to the issue.
If ABI pursues the issue as a legal matter with Fream, Whisenhunt has said he will look into permanently hosting “Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine” on his website.
“Beltline is not some genius idea of a name,” Whisenhunt said. “ABI needs to rethink its whole strategy with regard to non-commercial uses of its name and rethink its strategy of how far do we want to take this.”