Central Atlanta Boosters: Buckhead Secession 'Absolutely Stupid,' Would Hurt Economic Development
Two of the most prominent advocates for Midtown and Downtown Atlanta say the push for Buckhead to become its own city is based on a flawed perception of crime and a push toward racial and economic segregation, a move that will damage the city's ability to lure companies and jobs to the region.
Midtown Alliance CEO Kevin Green and Central Atlanta Progress President A.J. Robinson said at Bisnow's Midtown and Downtown Debrief event last week that Atlanta Mayor-elect Andre Dickens has an opportunity to reinvigorate city services after two years of little activity and mounting frustrations among residents, especially in Buckhead.
But if Buckhead does split into its own city, it could set a precedent that may lead other wealthy, majority-White neighborhoods to secede from their local municipalities, Robinson said.
“It's just an incredibly ill-advised move by a lot of frustrated people who don't believe they're being listened to. But it's also being driven a lot by politics of the day,” Robinson said during the event on Dec. 2. “Just think about the other cities in Georgia where there's a White majority in their area. That [vote to secede] is just absolutely stupid, to be honest with you. It's a bad precedent. What are we going to do, relive the Civil War? I mean, that's kind of what's going to happen.”
Dickens won the Atlanta mayoral election in a landslide in a Nov. 30 runoff against Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, a race that opened up when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms didn't seek a second term. While a number of issues will be taking Dickens' attention once he takes office, none may be more immediately pressing than a movement among some Buckhead residents to secede from Atlanta and incorporate their own city.
Driven by frustrations with the city over crime, disrupted city services and more control over land use, the Buckhead City movement — spearheaded by New York businessman and recent Atlanta transplant Bill White — is looking to get the state legislature to pass a bill that will allow a referendum on cityhood next November. But Robinson and Green said the crime wave is more a perception than reality in the city.
The Atlanta police department investigated 79 homicides by July, up 67% from 2020, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Green and Robinson — whose groups, Midtown Alliance and Central Atlanta Progress, respectively, are prominent nonprofit organizations that steer growth and development in the two submarkets — said crime in the city was down overall, with murder down 40%, Robinson said, and car break-ins down by half from 2020 in Downtown. Green said Buckhead, which accounts for 24% of the city's population, accounted for 11% of violent crime and 8% of shootings.
“My guess is that nobody's house in Buckhead has gone down in value during this so-called public safety pandemic. I don't know anybody selling their house in Buckhead for less than what they bought it for a couple of years ago,” Robinson said. “The people who are producing this are playing on all the fears of folks again around public safety.”
Green said a Buckhead City would be a detriment to Atlanta's economic development success in the past few years, especially with the national headlines trumpeting the separation.
“You have this state-sanctioned remedy that is going to cause more racial and economic segregation. I mean, how is that a winning formula in terms of economic development?” Green said. “That puts everybody in a posture of damage control despite the fact that we have a workforce ... that is the envy of every city across the country. The whole premise is flawed.”
White, the CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, disputed Green and Robinson's characterizations in an interview with Bisnow after the event. Despite the statements out of CAP and Midtown Alliance leaders, White said Buckhead being able to hire its own police force would solve its crime problem. White said Dickens' vow to hire 400 new Atlanta police officers over the next two years is an impossible task, while a Buckhead city can better accommodate hiring half that number with promises of housing assistance in the new city.
“Andre Dickens is never going to be able to hire 400 cops. That's impossible. They can't hire 50 cops right now, how is he going to hire 400 cops?” White said, criticizing how the city administration has singled out the city police force over the past two years over high-profile incidents that have led to a rash of resignations.
“There should be a parade for the Atlanta police families every six months to apologize for what we put them through,” White said, adding that Buckhead is looking to hire 250 officers if it becomes a city.
“The political willpower to smack down the crime is not there," he added.
Despite the messaging against cityhood, White said his group has enough support from Buckhead residents to pass a referendum.
“There's only a certain point where you're exploited and manipulated for so long. You can't go to the gas station without fear of being shot," White said. "It's all over. It's game over. The divorce is final."
Despite Dickens' public stance that he would reach out to the leaders of the Buckhead cityhood movement, White said the mayor-elect hasn't called or contacted his organization in the days following the election.
“I think our call should be the first three, if not the first,” White said. “It's indicative that he doesn't give a crap about Buckhead. He just wants our money. So we're waiting for the call.”
Robinson and Green said that a Dickens administration has the potential to fix many of the issues that city residents and businesses complained about with services over the past couple of years.
”You just need to get City Hall to work. I mean, City Hall has been closed since Covid. People are working, but there's not a sense of urgency or energy there. Just getting the little things done. Trash pickup, building permits, inspectors come back on a regular basis,” Robinson said. “Particularly over the last couple years, we had very little government.”
Michael Smith, Bottoms' press secretary, disputed Robinson's characterization of city services under the mayor, adding that she was able to leverage millions of dollars in federal pandemic stimulus funding to help local businesses affected by Covid-19.
“Unfortunately, A.J. Robinson has a longstanding history of misrepresenting matters related to Mayor Bottoms,” Smith said in a statement. “City of Atlanta assistance programs launched during the pandemic became models for other cities looking for ways to continue business during this unprecedented time in our history. Under Mayor Bottoms, the city reserves remain extraordinarily high, at $181M. We closed the largest real estate transaction in the history of the city, while delivering millions of dollars of community benefits. This in addition to four years with a balanced budget, no property tax increases, furloughs or layoffs of city employees."
SJC Ventures partner Jeff DeHart, who lives in Buckhead, said the question of Buckhead's cityhood should be able to come to a vote, even though he said he was personally against the concept. SJC Ventures is developing the second phase of The Interlock in Midtown's Westside.
“I see nothing but pain and suffering as a result of it,” DeHart said. "But I also think it won't pass."