In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the headline “The Mayor of Buckhead” from 1999, Sam Massell, then the President of the Buckhead Coalition, said something apropos of 2021.
“When you consider that Buckhead has 15% of the Atlanta population and 20% of the land, and pays 45% of the real estate taxes, obviously Buckhead becomes important to the rest of the city,” Massell is quoted as saying. “People here talk about seceding. I would oppose it because it would bankrupt Atlanta.”
Fast forward two decades and the relatively new president of the coalition is waging that fight in earnest. A group of individuals is pushing the state legislature to put a vote for Buckhead cityhood on the ballot.
Same as his predecessor, Jim Durrett, who took the top job in Buckhead in July 2020, is against the movement.
Aaron Rents founder and CEO Charlie Loudermilk, a Buckhead Boy through and through, came up with the idea of a community development organization for the North Atlanta hamlet in 1988. To that point, Buckhead’s leadership had been ceded to the city of Atlanta. The coalition gave Buckhead a voice in city and state matters while influencing local development trends.
Massell was a fine choice for the first president. He not only lived in Buckhead, but he had served as Atlanta Mayor from 1970 to 1974.
CEOs and business leaders make up the membership of the organization, capped at 75. Unlike similar groups, a majority of the members live in Buckhead, a key distinction. The thinking was not only would these leaders make decisions in the best interest of the business community, but as residents, they would also have the neighborhoods in mind, which I have long held are Buckhead’s main asset.
Massell was a shrewd politician both in terms of the city of Atlanta, the state and the coalition members. He netted a ton of positive press and did a remarkable job of smoothing over some of the community’s more challenging wrinkles.
For example, when individuals complained about traffic, he boasted it meant people wanted to come to Buckhead. When the bar scene got out of hand — and crime along with it — Massell was in front of the cameras saying it had nothing to do with race, even though many Buckhead residents felt it did.
Now, it is up to Durrett to move Buckhead forward during a tumultuous time.
He isn’t coming into it blind. Going back to my days as the head of this paper 20 years ago, he served as the executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, a self-taxing entity charged with community planning, road improvements, green space and transit planning. The coalition was the main driver of the CID’s creation.
Durrett is a Buckhead native. He grew up on Ridgewood Road, attended Westminster and holds degrees from the Universities of Virginia and Georgia. His father, the legendary Alston and Bird attorney Frazer Durrett, grew up on Muscogee Avenue, went to E. Rivers Elementary School and North Fulton High School — like Loudermilk, a Buckhead Boy.
The issue that now occupies most of Jim Durrett’s time is crime. His organization spearheaded the Buckhead Security Plan, a strategy that includes adding off-duty police officers, funding more cameras and holding lawbreakers accountable among other things. To me, the crime issue came to a head during the protests last summer. Looters and rioters came to Buckhead, robbed stores and destroyed property up and down Peachtree Road and Piedmont Avenue.
I watched it unfold on television and social media. Early the next morning I drove to the Disco Kroger on Piedmont and walked to Lenox Square to see the damage for myself and offer assistance.
Crews were already out on the sidewalks boarding up broken windows, sweeping up glass and installing barricades lest it happened again.
I noticed among them a familiar face.
It was Jim Durrett, cleaning up, rushing from business to business, offering assistance and leadership. This was before the Buckhead Coalition announced he would be just its second president.
I doubt anyone noticed. He certainly wasn’t seeking any attention.
While he was out early that morning helping any way he could, others were already pointing fingers at the city of Atlanta and lobbying for a way out from the comfort of their living rooms.