Sam Massell quietly ended his tenure as president of the Buckhead Coalition, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Massell, who announced his retirement in January, and his wife Sandra have been self-quarantining since the outbreak hit Georgia starting in March. Neither has contracted the virus, but since Massell turns 93 in August, he wanted to play it safe.
“We’re smiling. We’re well fed. We’re comfortable,” he said. “We have a cocktail hour every night in our private courtyard.”
Massell’s last day as leader of the chamber-like, invitation-only organization of 100 CEOs promoting Buckhead was June 30. On that day the coalition held its monthly meeting, where it announced Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District (CID), is the new president.
In an interview with the Neighbor, Massell reflected on the 32 years he’s spent as president of the coalition, which he co-founded. He is staying on as a consultant for two years.
Massell, a former Atlanta mayor, is also known as the unofficial mayor of Buckhead. When asked if he was disappointed to end his tenure at a time when there were few in-person events where he could meet with individuals in the flesh and not virtually, he said no because everyone else was in the same situation.
“We did most of our work by telephone and computer internet communications even before this (pandemic) came about. It hasn’t changed that much from my involvement,” Massell said, adding his executive vice president, Garth Peters, has personally brought him new materials and reports daily.
The coalition started in 1988 as an organization designed to promote Buckhead in a variety of ways.
“It was like a sleepy bedroom community, its image and its activity level,” he said of Buckhead then. “But today we’re competing with any downtown, not just Atlanta’s. We have that skyline, the economy, the mixture of residents and visitors. We’re offering quite a bit.”
When asked about what he’ll remember most about his tenure, Massell started by talking about the coalition’s members, both past and present, and how proud he was of them. Its funding comes completely from membership dues, so the organization has never had any fundraisers of its own, but its annual Buckhead Guidebook raises money for local charities.
“We undertook some controversial or conflicting situations,” he said. “We never had any arguments, but I do remember one with (then-Atlanta Mayor) Maynard Jackson when we started. But I won’t repeat it now.
“We went in one direction, which was to brand Buckhead as the address of choice. All you have to is look around the intersection of Peachtree and Piedmont (roads) or the intersection of Peachtree and West Paces (Ferry Road) and you’re convinced.”
Two things Massell said he was proud of were helping Buckhead’s population grow and successfully lobbying the state in the 1990s to extend Georgia 400 south from Interstate 285 south to I-85 (and in 2014 completing the 400/85 interchange).
“We’re now 100,000 strong,” he said. “We haven’t changed our boundaries. A lot of cities have annexed other parts to expand their cities. … (The 400 extension) connects us directly to the airport or Roswell or (other) points north without a stoplight. It’s had a positive effect on our economy and the growth of this community.”
Massell said he was also pleased with three other initiatives, the first being the coalition’s partnership with the Buckhead Community Improvement District, a self-taxing organization spun off from the coalition, to create the Peachtree Boulevard streetscape project to beautify and improve traffic flow on Peachtree Road. The last two were adding defibrillators to about 60 stations across Buckhead and equipping the Atlanta Police Department’s officers with over 100 trauma kits.
“The chief of police in St. Croix was the one that told us that the major cause of law enforcement (deaths) in the line of duty was a loss of blood, so they came up with a kit” the coalition copied,” he said. “We were the first entity in the United States to place external defibrillators where people were rather than in ambulances. The American Heart Association said we would save lives if people got to them within seven minutes (of having a heart attack).”
Massell also said he’s proud of the friendships the coalition has developed with the Atlanta, Fulton County and state governments over the years.
In retirement, Massell said he and his wife plan to finish combining the two townhouses they own into one. In the mean time, he said he’s working as hard, if not harder, than he ever has.
“I’m continuing to work seven days a week but I’m not complaining,” Massell said.
Durrett, who met Massell nearly 11 years ago when he was hired, said his organization owes a lot to Massell and the coalition.
“The Buckhead CID was spawned by the Buckhead Coalition almost 21 years ago, so we owe our existence to Sam and the coalition,” Durrett said. “He has been a steadfast voice for Buckhead for 32 years, looking out for the interests of residents and businesses, alike.”