When Sandy Johnson’s printer runs out of ink, she has to drive far outside her South DeKalb neighborhood to buy a replacement cartridge because there aren’t any office supply stores nearby.
She also has to travel to other areas when she wants to find upscale restaurants or entertainment.
Johnson hopes creating a city out of her underdeveloped section of South DeKalb will change all that, bringing more businesses and jobs to the area. Her community and the nearby Stonecrest neighborhood have launched ambitious drives to incorporate.
“There are lots of opportunities to impact the quality of life here,” said Johnson. “South DeKalb was never designed to be developed and self-sustaining. I still have to drive every place I go.”
Unlike the aspiring municipalities of Tucker and LaVista Hills to the north, which emphasize their need for local control and better services, many people in the less affluent southern parts of the county view cityhood as an economic development tool: Prettier streets, careful planning and a political voice, they say, will result in businesses moving in.
They’re also motivated by the fear of being the one of the last unincorporated areas in DeKalb, possibly causing their county taxes to rise.
“We want to attract the types of businesses that we would choose to be employed with, so we can work close to home and spend more time in our communities rather than spending most of our time in commutes,” said Joel Thibodeaux, an auditor who backs the Stonecrest movement.
Skeptics question the proposed cities’ ability to recruit businesses and provide better government services, but cityhood proponents say they believe the region will be worse off if it does nothing.
Stonecrest would contain about 50,000 residents surrounding its largest commercial property, Stonecrest Mall, while sprawling South DeKalb would include about 294,000 people, making it the second-largest city in the state after Atlanta. The two potential cities have already agreed on shared borders, avoiding the kind of conflict that’s ongoing between Tucker and LaVista Hills.
A city of Stonecrest would be able to separate itself from DeKalb County and do a better job of attracting businesses than the county, said Jason Lary, a health-care executive and president of the Stonecrest City Alliance. He said the county does other things well, such as policing and water and sewer services.
“Stonecrest lends a new brand for a new town to draw new business to this corridor,” Lary said. “Right now, that’s not going to happen with the DeKalb County name.”
Stonecrest’s effort failed at the Georgia General Assembly earlier this year after a study found that its government expenses would exceed revenues. Since then, Stonecrest revised its boundaries — cutting its map in half. Lary believes a second feasibility study will bring good news when it’s completed next month.
The South DeKalb cityhood movement faces a more difficult path. The region covers so many homes and so few tax-generating businesses that it might not be feasible.
But Kathryn Rice, who leads the South DeKalb initiative, said the area’s proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory University and the Savannah seaport would make it ripe for development. She said the new city might have to raise taxes to make it financially realistic, but she believes residents likely will face higher taxes from the county anyway if they remain unincorporated.
“Businesses coming to an area are like people — they seek out amenities that often come with a city,” Rice said. “As it stands now, we’re less developed, and we don’t have those things to offer.”
Even small efforts, such as landscaping and an attractive city center, could make a difference, said Darold Honoré, a Lithonia city councilman who works in real estate.
“That’s the power of a city,” he said. “People want to build a business in a town that at least looks attractive.”
If approved by state lawmakers and voters, both Stonecrest and South DeKalb would start with three basic services: planning and zoning, parks and recreation, and code enforcement.
The tentative South DeKalb city doesn’t have a name yet, but options include New Phoenix, Mountain View, Granite City, Sky City, New DeKalb, Candler City and New Haven.
Mike Cooper, a critic of incorporation who lives near Stone Mountain, said he doubts a city would do any better job than DeKalb County.
“I don’t see a new city as any panacea,” Cooper said. “We have our problems, but we have a way to get things done with the county, and people need to find a way to deal with it.”
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