The proposed East-West Connector had been stalled for some 20 years when, in 1993, Cobb County Manager David Hankerson was assigned the task of winning the permits to build it.
The path of the road cut through not just Austell and Smyrna, but a historic district and wetlands. Local preservationists and conservationists who opposed the project had drawn a line in the sand. Multiple federal and state agencies had to be appeased.
But two years later — to the surprise of no one who knows Hankerson, many say — construction began.
“There was a lot of people involved and coordination,” recalled Hankerson, who retired in April as one of the longest serving county managers in Georgia. “That was quite an accomplishment.”
The connector opened up movement within the county, spurring development throughout southwest Cobb, Hankerson said. It is one of many projects he ushered to fruition over his 33 years with the county, a period of explosive growth and urbanization.
“I never hated to come to work for Cobb,” Hankerson said. “I couldn’t wait, I was always here early, always here late.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson marked Hankerson’s retirement with a short tribute on the Senate floor, calling Hankerson one of the people “that really makes America work.”
Hankerson was raised in Waynesboro, where he grew up helping his father farm. It was hard manual labor, but Hankerson loved working the land. As a young man, he attended Fort Valley State College, where he majored in agrology — the study of plants and soil.
When Hankerson first moved to Cobb in 1973 as a federal employee for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the county was a largely rural community of about 200,000 people — farmers, ranchers and the prominent Marietta families that had lived there for generations.
“Believe it or not, in Cobb, we still had some row-crop farming going on,” Hankerson recalled. “If I didn’t get bread or milk or something by six o’clock, because the little neighborhood stores would close at six, you had to drive back to one of the cities to get it. There were no streetlights. There was nothing out there.”
In 1984, he was hired by the county to oversee development, and in 1993, he was appointed county manager.
Ross King, executive director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said Hankerson was renowned in local government for his management style and deep knowledge of budgetary process, ethics and human resources.
“He’s not forceful, yet he’s highly effective,” said King. He credited Hankerson with the construction of Cobb’s Safety Village, community recreation centers and its triple A bond rating.
Former commissioner Thea Powell has known Hankerson for many years.
“He certainly always had a lot of archival history because he’d been there for so long,” Powell said. “He was a great resource.”
He was also known as an avid gardener, and would sometimes bring extra vegetables to the office.
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell also recalled Hankerson’s love of gardening, and his “wealth of knowledge.”
A scholarship in Hankerson’s name was established at Kennesaw State University for the master’s program in public administration.
Last year, Mike Boyce was elected chairman on a platform of transparency, replacing Tim Lee. Lee's loss was partly fueled by popular resentment over the deal to fund the new Braves stadium with half a billion in tax dollars. The morning after Boyce's election, he announced that he would only renew Hankerson's contract for one year, citing the public desire for a "new direction."
King said it was unfair to blame the county manager for decisions made by the County Commission.
“He, by virtue of the policies that were set by the previous board, did what he was asked to do,” King said. “I think it had gotten to the point where, with that [SunTrust Park] being such a high profile project and becoming a campaign theme, that comments were made, and there comes a point when it’s time for someone to move on.”
For his part, Hankerson said he “probably” would have stayed on with the county if he hadn’t been shown the door. He also said he became involved with the Braves deal only after Lee had decided to move forward with it.
“I know that there were some issues with lack of transparency,” he said, adding, “when you’re doing a deal like that I’m not so sure that we would have been able to close the deal without some lack of transparency, but I understand the public.”
While King and others lauded Hankerson for his steady leadership over the course of several administrations, for others, 33 years in the job was too long.
Without going into detail, Steve Gaynor, head of the Cobb County Fraternal Order of Police, said that he's "had a lot of differences of opinion" with Hankerson, and welcomed the change of the guard with the new county manager, Rob Hosack.
“Rob Hosack is very open to allowing department heads to run their own departments,” Gaynor said. “He’s very open to suggestions and hearing concerns. He’s very open to change, positive change.”
Hankerson acknowledged that some in public safety were not pleased with him, attributing their frustration to budgetary policies that were beyond his control.
“That was my role as county manager,” he said.
But, Hankerson said, he did not interfere with the day-to-day operations of the police department.
Much has changed since Hankerson started working for the county.
Now, Cobb is a thriving suburb of more than 800,000 people, home to major companies like Home Depot and, of course, the Atlanta Braves. Ranches and farms have been replaced with subdivisions and shopping centers. And the county’s diminishing greenspace and traffic top resident concerns.
Looking to the future, Hankerson said Cobb will continue to struggle with growth, from demographic and political shifts to taxes, public safety and maintaining infrastructure. Luckily, he said, Cobb enjoys some of the lowest taxes in metro Atlanta and is in a good position to address these challenges.
“You’ve got the potential to deal with your growth pains but that takes a political decision,” Hankerson said. “At least we know that the tools are there to do it if there’s the political will.”
After a lifetime of working, Hankerson, who is in his seventies, shows no signs of slowing down. He’s taken a position as the Director of Intergovernmental and Civic Affairs with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
In this role, he will oversee civic education and intern placement programs, in addition to consulting on a number of regional projects. He also continues to advise the county as it transitions to a new county manager.
Hankerson said he didn’t even take a vacation between one job and the next.
“I’m a workaholic,” he said.