Residents hope Mableton Square in South Cobb can be a new gathering place for the community.  HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Momentum builds for local control in South Cobb

More than two dozen residents stopped by the new Mableton Square one recent sunny afternoon to chart a future for the small park they hope will become the seed for a revitalized city center in the South Cobb community.

Next door sits the gleaming new Mableton Elementary School, and down the road a bit are the old railroad tracks that slice through this unincorporated community that got its start as a 19th century train depot.

Suggestions for the square, which opened last spring, ranged from a dog park to a playground to a community garden. Many said they’d like to see the surrounding vacant land developed with new housing, restaurants and coffee shops.

“I really like this idea of fruit trees,” said Junior Jacobo, a 24-year-old chef who spent much of his youth in Mableton and recently moved back from California. “It would attract all ages.”

Aerial photo shows Mableton Square. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The conversation over the park comes at a time of renewed civic energy that is mobilizing some residents in South Cobb toward greater local control. The movement is fueled by a feeling that the area, which is majority nonwhite, has been neglected by the county government. There’s talk of annexing to a neighboring town or possibly creating a new city of Mableton that would include surrounding neighborhoods. It would be the first new city in Cobb since the cityhood movement gained momentum across metro Atlanta over the past decade.

Leroy Hutchins of the South Cobb Alliance is working to raise $30,000 to commission a cityhood feasibility study from the University of Georgia. He said his community wants greater control over its resources, zoning and economic development.

“This would also guarantee that we have the right type of representation,” Hutchins said. “The other commissioners vote against things in our area. They don’t live in our area, they don’t drive through our area … the South Cobb community is being overlooked.”

The proposed study would focus on Mableton and neighborhoods to the south and west, including the Six Flags area and communities outside Austell’s city limits. It represents a second chance at cityhood for Mableton, the hometown of former Gov. Roy Barnes. The area was briefly incorporated in the early 20th century but has been part of unincorporated Cobb County since 1916.

South Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who was elected in 2012 as the sole Democrat and African American on the five-member board, said that many of her constituents are frustrated with the county, and she can understand why. She is often the dissenting vote on big decisions, including those affecting her district.

Last spring, the other members of the board overruled Cupid on the naming of a new public greenspace along Chattahoochee River in South Cobb. The local community wanted to call it Mableton Discovery Park, but white board members objected that the name didn’t recognize the area’s Civil War history.

“I can’t necessarily say that the lack of responsiveness has been a result of race, but the element of race is still there and it’s apparent,” Cupid said. “There just may be a general desire for communities to have a more responsive governmental structure.”

Cupid said density may also play a role because county governments are less equipped to serve more populated areas.

If Mableton and its surrounding neighborhoods were to incorporate, it would need the approval of the Georgia legislature. But that could prove difficult. Metro Atlanta’s cityhood movement has faced backlash and legal challenges in some cases.

State Rep. Erica Thomas, who represents the area, said she was waiting to see the results of the feasibility study before broaching the subject with fellow lawmakers.

“I do think it’s something that we should explore in the next session,” she said. “Mableton is growing so much.”

Community leaders say Mableton’s proximity to Atlanta and relatively affordable real estate are attracting new residents, many of them young, educated and diverse.

“Folks are beginning to find this little gem here,” said Ray Thomas of the Mableton Improvement Coalition said. “The people who are coming here are much more civic minded and as a result of that we’re getting more people involved.”

Not everyone is convinced that cityhood is the answer, but many agree that the South Cobb community should organize to improve the area’s quality of life. Local homeowner associations have banded together to share best practices and advocate for common causes. There’s talk of creating a Mableton community improvement district, which would allow commercial property owners to tax themselves and use the money to invest in the area.

Advocates have also reached out to officials in Austell and Smyrna about possible annexation into those cities. When it comes to cityhood, however, Thomas said many are undecided.

“I don’t think the community is prepared to make a decision,” he said, noting incorporation would probably mean higher taxes. “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

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