Around Atlanta, Georgia, many communities are pursuing cityhood. : Planet Money There's a movement underway in Georgia. More and more communities around Atlanta are choosing to keep their tax dollars very local, and become their own cities. It's a story about equity and exclusion – and also potholes. | Subscribe to Planet Money+ in Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

A tale of two cityhoods

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1110634395/1110638030" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

ERIKA BERAS, HOST:

There's a corner of Cobb County, Ga., outside of Atlanta, where you see one kind of business over and over again.

LEROY HUTCHINS: This is a tire shop. This is another tire shop.

BERAS: Tire shops - so many of them.

HUTCHINS: More tire shops to your right - tire shop next to it.

BERAS: I'm driving around with Leroy Hutchins. Everyone calls him Tre'. He's lived here in Mableton, Ga., most of his life.

HUTCHINS: Three tire shops just past here on your left-hand side - right next to each other, really.

BERAS: Mableton is 15 miles outside of shiny, bustling Atlanta. But you wouldn't know it if you just got plopped down here because Mableton has a left-behind feeling to it - tall grass along the roadsides, aging strip malls, partly vacant, with some dollar stores and pawn shops and all those tire shops. We drove around for, like, an hour and really do see so many - more than 20.

So is this, like, a destination for tire shops?

HUTCHINS: It feels like that.

BERAS: But then drive a little bit further...

HUTCHINS: Go to the light, and we'll make a right. And let's just go down by Six Flags.

BERAS: ...And I spot the crest of a roller coaster - actually, a bunch of them - colorful arcs surrounded by a big fence with signs on it that read, Six Flags Over Georgia. It's a huge amusement park without much around it, no restaurants or anything - just parking lots and trees.

So, like, I'm looking out this window here, and I see nothing but, like, trees.

HUTCHINS: Yes.

BERAS: And they're beautiful trees.

HUTCHINS: Yes.

BERAS: I love trees. And I see just, like, land. So what is your vision for what that would look like?

HUTCHINS: Six Flags Entertainment District, where people come here, and they want to stay here for a week.

BERAS: So like Disney World.

HUTCHINS: Disney is the example that we use. In Orlando, when you drive closer to the entrances of Disney World, you know that you are in Disney World headquarters. You know that. When you drive off our exit to come to Six Flags, there's nothing to really show you that this is the pride jewel of the southern portion of the county. We can change that.

BERAS: It's obviously a lot to aspire to - the area around one small regional theme park turning into a mini Orlando. The way Tre' sees it, what's holding Mableton back is it's not its own city. It's unincorporated. It's part of the larger county that surrounds it, Cobb County. So a lot of things about how Mableton works are dictated by the county, like zoning - what kind of businesses can come here. They control code enforcement. So when old tires pile up outside those tire shops, the county is supposed to give out the fines, which Tre' says isn't happening enough. And so Tre' and some other people from Mableton decided, you know what? Forget the county. Let's be our own city. But how do you make your own city?

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERS JOHAN GREGER LEWEN'S "MOODY POP GUITARS")

BERAS: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Erika Beras.

MARY CHILDS, HOST:

And I'm Mary Childs. Today on the show - cityhood. If you think your community deserves better, form your own city.

BERAS: It sounds radical. But here in this part of Georgia, lots of communities have been doing what Mableton wants to do - banding together and forming their own cities.

CHILDS: Some places want to keep their tax dollars for themselves. Others, like Mableton, are looking for a little more say in how they run things.

BERAS: It's a story about equity, exclusion and the power that cities can hold - and also potholes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERS JOHAN GREGER LEWEN'S "MOODY POP GUITARS")

CHILDS: Mableton, where Tre' Hutchins grew up, is a mostly Black and brown community. The Six Flags has been there for decades. In the '90s, Tre' got his first job there, working at a concession stand selling hot dogs, popcorn, sodas. He went away for college and came back years later to raise his kids. And when he did, he saw so much had changed.

HUTCHINS: And I just started seeing the age and the decline in the area. And it was like, we have to do something. And I didn't know what it was.

CHILDS: Things that made Mableton a nice place to live - like the skating rink, the movie theater, the bowling alley - they were all gone.

BERAS: He saw plenty of development in other parts of the county but not Mableton. And you know how every town has a person who has their hands in everything? Well, in Mableton, that's Tre'.

You're on the school board.

HUTCHINS: Yes.

BERAS: You build houses for humanity.

HUTCHINS: Right. Still work in ministry.

BERAS: Still work in ministry. Do you coach teams?

HUTCHINS: Nope. That's not my forte. I do work with a production company here in Atlanta that puts on musicals sometimes.

BERAS: You sing?

HUTCHINS: Yeah, I do sing.

BERAS: OK.

HUTCHINS: I do sing and dance.

CHILDS: So naturally, Tre' starts thinking about Mableton's development problem - businesses closing and new development not coming their way.

BERAS: He tries to figure out why that's happening, and what he finds out is the zoning rules where he lives covered the entire county. That's how it works when you're an unincorporated community. The county makes the rules.

CHILDS: And the rules in Cobb County are designed for new development. So they require, like, a certain number of parking spaces, depending on what kind of new business is coming in. But those rules get in the way of redeveloping places that were built up a long time ago, like Mableton. A lot of the shopping centers there are smaller than what gets built now. So there just isn't room for all the parking that the county requires.

HUTCHINS: So auto repair shops where you don't necessarily need a lot of parking end up becoming the business of choice because of the zoning.

BERAS: This is how Tre' eventually came around to the idea that Mableton should be its own city.

HUTCHINS: The county is a large place, right? This is just a small portion of the county. And so you can't change county code to reflect something that's just going to be specific to the small area within the county. And so having a city would allow us to customize zoning so that we can specifically address some of the concerns that we're talking about right here through a municipality or a city ordinance versus through the county ordinance.

CHILDS: If Mableton were a city, it would have authority over some of its tax dollars. It could make its own ordinances, enforce its own codes, require less parking for new businesses coming in.

BERAS: In the U.S., cities are one of the oldest units of government. They formed organically, like near a waterway. The city of Philadelphia is older than the state of Pennsylvania.

CHILDS: There was a time when cities and municipalities were constantly cropping up. The 1950s, when the suburbs were growing, many of those became their own cities. A new city formed every three days.

BERAS: Today, the way cities are established tends to be more strategic. Developers size up trends and decide where to build. That's happening all over the south and west. In Tre's case, Mableton has been around for more than 100 years, and he wants to build it back up. For him, cityhood is a means to an end.

Was there, like, a moment when they're like, we need someone to do this, and nobody's hand went up? And you were like, is my hand slowly creeping up? Is my hand slowly creeping up?

HUTCHINS: So I met with, like, friends - people I grew up with, people I went to high school with that are still here. And we were eating some wings and talking about it. And then finally we were just, like, well, do you guys think this is something we should be doing? And they were, like, well, Tre', why don't you do it?

BERAS: Mableton becoming its own city was not some farfetched idea. Georgia's rules for becoming a city are pretty permissive. If the majority of people who live inside the proposed city boundaries support it - vote yes, we want to be a city - then it can happen. There is one hurdle - the state legislature has to sign off on the proposed new city before it can go to ballot. But after that, if it gets approved, a city can be a city if it takes on just three services, like planning and zoning or code enforcement.

CHILDS: Once Tre' had decided that he wanted to make Mableton a city, there was one person he knew he had to talk to - Oliver Porter.

BERAS: Oliver lives in Sandy Springs. It's also in the Atlanta suburbs, about a half hour drive away. It's kind of the model for what Tre's trying to do. Oliver got Sandy Springs turned into a city almost 20 years ago. Then he self-published a book about how he did it, which Tre' got his hands on. And then he called up Oliver.

HUTCHINS: He was, like, some of the pitfalls, some of the things not to do, you know...

BERAS: What were those things? Like what were the things he was like - what are the pitfalls?

HUTCHINS: Community engagement - he said, make sure that it is focused on community engagement - transparency, making sure that everything is out in the open, making sure that even your fundraising is very inclusive and not a developer paying for the study or something like that, making sure that this is community-driven and community-focused.

CHILDS: So Tre' started talking about Mableton cityhood with anyone he could. He met with business owners and renters and homeowners associations, started raising money for a feasibility study to prove out their plan.

HUTCHINS: We were literally sitting out in cul-de-sacs in communities in the summertime talking to...

BERAS: Ooh, hot.

HUTCHINS: ...HOA communities about - hey, this is - these are - this is what's on the table.

BERAS: At this point, Mableton's gotten pretty far in their planning. This fall, the people who have become citizens of the newly incorporated city will be able to vote on the idea. If the majority says yes, it'll go through.

CHILDS: If it happens, Tre's overlooked community - it's about 70,000 people - will have more power over itself, and Tre' believes they'll be able to put Mableton on a better path - fewer tire shops, more restaurants and stores and fun. They'll have a shot at their share of prosperity.

BERAS: But the cityhood movement around Atlanta - it started from a very different place. That's after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERAS: Oliver Porter lives at the end of a cul-de-sac that overlooks the Chattahoochee River. He's 85, and to get an idea of the kind of person he is, when Oliver retired, he took up painting. On one wall of his house, there's a whole series of self-portraits.

OLIVER PORTER: You know, all of them are in different outfits. That's Lord Porter.

BERAS: Dressed up in a top hat.

PORTER: Tex Porter.

BERAS: Big cowboy hat.

PORTER: That's a Frenchman Porter.

BERAS: A beret, of course.

CHILDS: When Oliver decides he wants to do something, he does it himself. For example, he wanted an oak walnut-stained library, one with handmade paneled walls, shelves of cloth bound books and one of those fancy rolling ladders. So he made one in his basement.

BERAS: So you built and designed all of this yourself?

PORTER: I had no idea what I was doing when I was building this. I'd never done any woodworking or anything of this magnitude. And I guess I felt like, I want it, so I'll just do it.

CHILDS: This is the same attitude that led him to make his community of Sandy Springs into its own city.

BERAS: Sandy Springs is not like Mableton. It's the kind of place people describe as comfortable - winding tree-lined streets, big lawns, landmarks like the golf course. But back in the '90s, when Sandy Springs was still an unincorporated community, Oliver was noticing changes he didn't like.

PORTER: The county had been approving apartments left and right. So there was great concern that we were turning from a quiet residential community into a high-rise apartment community, and we didn't feel that was good for the community. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with being an apartment dweller, but in general, they don't have the same commitment as people who own their homes. They're more transient, and they haven't invested at the same level. Single-family homes are the, you know, the bedrock of a solid community.

BERAS: I should point out that at the time, 94% of homeowners in Sandy Springs were white. And 90% of renters were Black and Latino.

CHILDS: And it wasn't just apartments that Oliver was worked up about. He felt like the county was taking Sandy Springs tax dollars and spending them elsewhere.

PORTER: We used to say, you could hear the money woosh as it leaves town. You would call the county, say you had a pothole, bad situation, and they'd, you know, it'd be months, maybe years before they'd come out. They were not giving us services commensurate with our contribution.

BERAS: So there's Oliver. He's worried high-rises were going to go up all along the river. He's pissed about the potholes. And he starts imagining a very different kind of government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Half-decade, Sandy Springs residents fought to get out from under control of the county government, insisting they could do a better job of running things themselves.

CHILDS: In 2005, when Sandy Springs became its own city, Oliver set out to reinvent how a city could be run. As he saw it, the whole model of local government, with its bureaucracy and inefficiencies, was ready for disruption.

BERAS: So when he became the volunteer city manager, he hired the minimum number of employees and outsourced almost everything else. He found an engineering firm willing to take on the job of running Sandy Springs.

CHILDS: Animal control - it was contracted out. Traffic design - contracted out. Tax collection, business licenses, parking tickets, database administration - all contracted out. And it worked. Potholes weren't a problem anymore.

PORTER: The two-man crew would show up. They would have on a shirt that said Sandy Springs and a truck with a magnetic sign that said Sandy Springs, and those two men would fix that pothole. That same private crew might be working in another city the next day.

CHILDS: After this success with Sandy Springs, Oliver wanted to spread the word about what he'd done, tell people about his efficient, money-saving city. Other communities took note, and pretty soon, there were lots of new cities forming all around Atlanta - Milton, Peachtree Corners, Stonecrest - all using Oliver Porter's privatization playbook.

BERAS: Before long, delegations from all over the world were flying into Sandy Springs to see this new model city up close and personal. Oliver went to conferences, spoke to groups in Japan and Hawaii. Local newspapers gave Oliver nicknames - the guru of incorporation, the father of cities.

CHILDS: Almost 20 years after Oliver first started outsourcing most city services, it's still his brand. People call him to talk about cityhood and privatizing local government. But since 2005, the way Sandy Springs runs has changed in some pretty fundamental ways.

RUSTY PAUL: Welcome to the Flying Pig Conference Room.

BERAS: Meet Rusty Paul. There's a story behind the name of the room we're in. It goes back to when Rusty was serving in the state Senate, helping Sandy Springs become a city.

PAUL: One of my colleagues in the Senate said, there'll be a city of Sandy Springs when pigs fly. So when we became a city, we adopted the flying pig as our emblem.

CHILDS: Rusty is now the mayor of Sandy Springs. And in the years since pigs flew and Sandy Springs became a city, things have moved away from Oliver's original model where you outsource everything because over time, outsourcing everything got more expensive. When the city got new bids in 2019, it was a real turning point.

PAUL: We were in the middle of a red-hot economy, and the prices we got were a little eye-opening. And so we sat down and did some analysis and figured that we could save about $2 million from the bids we had gotten if we hired the employees and brought them in. And so we did.

BERAS: Hire city employees - lots of them - with health insurance and retirement plans and city-owned computers.

PAUL: We had to hire everybody. I mean, everything that you do in a city, you know, planners, urban foresters and arborists and, you know...

BERAS: You had to hire all those people?

PAUL: Yeah, we hired them all. We had code reviewers, code enforcement people. We got people who operate our courts, accounting - I mean, we got a whole wing of people down here who pay bills and receive money.

CHILDS: The city of Sandy Springs now employs 503 people. And Rusty says having employees will save them $14 million over five years.

BERAS: So they did all this work to privatize everything - made a huge deal about it. And now the way they're running Sandy Springs is a traditional city bureaucracy, not the model city as a business Oliver Porter likes to talk about.

CHILDS: And that's not the only part of the story that gets glossed over in Oliver's how-to-build-a-city playbook. The idea of Sandy Springs cityhood has a long history. It's been kicking around since way before Oliver even lived in Sandy Springs, since the 1960s.

BERAS: Back then, Atlanta was about 50% Black but led by white politicians who were trying to annex some of the surrounding suburbs to bring in more tax revenue and also make the city more white to keep political power. They had their eye on Sandy Springs.

CHILDS: There are recordings from that time where you hear people from Sandy Springs talking about annexation. Some of them are for it. Some are against. All of them are white, and they're talking about how to keep themselves together, separated from Black residents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Colored people has taken us over.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So you are willing to have Sandy Springs go into the city?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, go in so when we get a decent mayor for Atlanta.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: If I wanted to live in Atlanta, we would have moved there in the first place. I think an area outside the city - if it wants to incorporate itself and be a small community with its own local government, that's fine. But I think that they should stay to themselves. The people who want to live in Atlanta can live in Atlanta.

BERAS: Some Sandy Springs residents were so against being annexed that they sent a letter to the mayor of Atlanta saying they would, quote, "build up a city separate from Atlanta and your Negroes and forbid any Negroes to buy or own or live within our limits," end quote. And that's what planted the seed for Sandy Springs cityhood.

CHILDS: So, years later, Oliver's push for cityhood was on different grounds. It was unhappiness with sharing tax revenue with apartment dwellers. But still, it felt familiar.

BERAS: Just thinking, like, how rooted was all of this, like, most - the more recent effort in those things?

PORTER: In racist issues?

BERAS: In racism and segregation...

PORTER: Not at all.

BERAS: ...And exclusion?

PORTER: Not at all. It's obviously one of the things we're always charged with. There's no truth to it whatsoever. I sat in those meetings for, as I said, about eight years, and I never heard a racial issue brought up as part of considerations. It was all about the economics. It was all about the governance.

BERAS: When you said that, like, most of the renters that lived in the apartments were people of color, and then you were talking about how there were so many apartments going up and you wanted less apartments - I mean, you could hear that and say - what you're saying is you don't want as many Black...

PORTER: Yeah, you could try to make that.

BERAS: ...Renters coming in.

PORTER: Well, let me clarify what I did say. You can try to twist something around and make that conclusion that we're being racist by opposing apartments, and that's not the case. It's just fallacious. What we were interested in is having decent apartments, decent housing and that the people there are behaving as good citizens. I don't care if they're purple, you know?

BERAS: The cities that have used Oliver's playbook - most of them have been white and well off. So even though the words have changed and race is not usually explicitly mentioned, it feels like it's inextricable from the cityhood movement.

CHILDS: Right now, there is a contentious push underway for the richest and whitest part of Atlanta, a neighborhood called Buckhead, to secede, to make its own city.

BERAS: Oliver Porter advised them. And if they succeed, they'll walk away with 40% of Atlanta's commercial and residential tax revenue. So with all of that context attached to cityhood efforts around Atlanta, what about Mableton, a mostly Black and brown community that's also trying to declare cityhood? Tre' is well aware of the history. So I asked him, how does it feel to use this model?

Does it feel like you're sort of flipping it on its head?

HUTCHINS: Well, I'm not sure, because for us it was more so how do we better our current situation? And so when we looked at it from that lens, I'm not sure that any of those other things were a factor. It was more like, this is the playbook. This is how this - can happen. And I think that's where our focus has always been.

CHILDS: He's not ambivalent about the history of local cityhood efforts. But if he can use cityhood to help his community, then OK.

BERAS: When Sandy Springs became a city, it was a white community splitting off from the larger and less white county it was a part of, to keep its resources for itself. If Mableton becomes a city, it'll be the opposite dynamic - a less well-off, mostly Black and brown community separating from the whiter county that surrounds it, striking out on its own not because they have a lot of tax revenue to fall back on, but in hopes of building something better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERAS: We here at PLANET MONEY are looking for our next intern. It's paid, and you can work from home. If you're interested, go to npr.org/internships.

Big thanks to Brentin Mock, Janice Jackson, Khalid Kamau, David Schleicher, Kevin Kruse, Michael Leo Owens, and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia Libraries.

CHILDS: Today's episode was produced by Emma Peaslee, Dave Blanchard and Willa Rubin, with an assist from Greg Morton. It was edited by Molly Messick. PLANET MONEY'S executive producer is Alex Goldmark. I'm Mary Childs.

BERAS: I'm Erika Beras. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.