EXCLUSIVE AJC POLL: Atlanta voters split on a ‘Buckhead City,’ not on crime

Voters outside Buckhead oppose secession, a majority inside support it



Kelly Musselwhite opened her child clothing and toy store “Born Baby” in Buckhead last year, but now she’s thinking about leaving the neighborhood due to rising crime.

Musselwhite said shootings are a regular occurrence outside of her store on Cains Hill Place. And, last week, she said a car crashed into her storefront despite police being in the area.

But if Buckhead were to split from Atlanta and develop its own crime-fighting strategy, Musselwhite said she would feel safer and might stick around.

”I love it here, I like what Buckhead was a few years ago, but everything you’re reading in the news is pretty scary, and it’s not under control and not getting under control,” Musselwhite said. “So sadly, it seems like the only option is to move, to leave the area.”

For the moment, Musselwhite is in the minority on the issue of Buckhead becoming a city.

A poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found about 58% of voters don’t want Buckhead to split from Atlanta — including 44% who are strongly opposed to the idea. About 29% support secession, including 15% who are strong supporters. Only 13% in the survey are undecided, while 61% of people living outside of Buckhead oppose cityhood.

That majority is turned on its head, though, when it comes to Buckhead residents like Musselwhite.

Of the survey respondents living in Buckhead ZIP codes, nearly 54% strongly or somewhat support secession. Only 7% are undecided.

The AJC commissioned the poll from the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, which surveyed 842 probable voters in this year’s mayoral race — where the candidates have closely linked the issues of crime and Buckhead cityhood.

Edward Lindsey, a former state representative who co-chairs the anti-cityhood group Committee for a United Atlanta, said voters need to focus on the upcoming election to select leaders who can immediately address crime and thwart the movement.

“Crime is spiking in Buckhead at a horrible, unacceptable level. But it’s also spiking … throughout Metro Atlanta and throughout the country,” Lindsey said. “We’re not going to curve crime in Buckhead by putting up a new city limits line.”

Divisions over the issue are also deeply political: More than half of Atlanta’s Republican voters (56%) support cityhood, while two-thirds of Democrats oppose it.

Ashley Wallace, owner of fashion boutique House of Wallace, said she supports Buckhead’s secession because she is concerned about crime. Wallace also said she thinks business will pick up “substantially” through cityhood because people are currently scared to shop in Buckhead.

“Crime is off the charts, and I think that we need to get it under control,” said Wallace, 35. “We need someone who can hyper focus on Buckhead as opposed to the whole entire the city. So if we go off on our own, we can put our resources to use to fix the problem within.”

Wallace, a Republican who supports former mayor Kasim Reed’s mayoral bid, called Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ approach to crime “atrocious at best.” She said the opponents to cityhood just “want our tax money.”

The money at stake is substantial.

A “Buckhead De-Annexation Fiscal Analysis,” completed in August by real estate and economic development consultant KB Advisory Group, found Atlanta would suffer net fiscal losses ranging from an estimated $80 million to $116 million annually.

The Atlanta Public School district would experience an estimated $232 million net annual loss to the district budget, the study found.

Bill White, the Buckhead City Committee’s chief executive, said in a statement that they “didn’t need a poll” to know most Atlantans want to keep “receiving tax revenues from Buckhead.” He called the poll “irrelevant” since cityhood only concerns Buckhead voters, not voters throughout the city.

Our recent poll indicates that the vast majority of Buckhead voters (60.7%) would like to vote on the issue. 65% of Buckhead voters say crime is the driving factor, including about 60% of African American Buckhead voters,” said White, who added that they’re doing more polling soon.

People inside and outside of Buckhead are also split what they think are the reasons for the cityhood movement.

Nearly 53% of the Buckhead residents polled said crime is main factor, while just 30% of the residents outside of Buckhead agreed. Residents outside of Buckhead said race was the second highest motivation (21.8%) for cityhood. Buckhead residents said there are “multiple” factors (19.2%) besides crime.

Buckhead resident Sanaa Akindele, 17, said she’s undecided about cityhood. She said Atlanta is “failing Buckhead,” but she also said state leaders spent money and time “making it harder for people to vote” when those resources “could have easily been spent on increased police surveillance in certain areas.”

“If being a city by itself is going to make Buckhead safe again, then so be it,” Akindele said.

A study commissioned by White’s organization found Buckhead city would generate a $100 million surplus on its annual budget thanks to its tax base. Supporters want to pass a cityhood bill at next year’s legislative session to give Buckhead residents a referendum on the November 2022 ballot.

Michael Leo Owens, a political scientist at Emory University, said he thinks people oppose Buckhead cityhood because Atlanta and its residents spend heavily in Buckhead, despite cityhood supporters claiming “the city doesn’t pay them any attention.”

But Owens also attributed the opposition to “partisanship and ideology.”

“Here we are in the midst of a pandemic and we should be trying to be all together, to be unified, and then you got this big chunk of the city saying ‘nah, we want out,’” Owens said. “The optics are just terrible.”