DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader outlines what he knows about Emory University’s move to annex into Atlanta. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy

Bill Torpy at Large: Emory wants to move into Atlanta?

Word that Emory University wants to join up with Atlanta came out of nowhere last week and brought together a room full of DeKalb County neighborhood leaders trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

The term “cascade” came up more than once at the meeting. It conjures up an image of a deluge, and DeKalb school board member Marshall Orson felt like he was standing under a waterfall.

“I thought I was in a nightmare; I thought annexation was all over,” Orson told the crowd. “As a school district we feel constantly under assault.”

Orson was referring to efforts more than a year ago, when some residents in Druid Hills and other unincorporated DeKalb neighborhoods wanted to annex into Atlanta after a proposed clustering of schools into a supercharter was shot down by the DeKalb school board.

People were cheesed and wanted to take their schools to Atlanta. If an area is annexed, the school buildings and the students in that area would become Atlanta schools and Atlanta students.

But last year’s drive to annex into Atlanta died off and the DeKalb school district has regained some of its mojo, with a new superintendent and a board that no longer resembles a WCW rasslin’ pay-per-view event. For that matter, the much-maligned DeKalb County government itself is looking better, what with a new CEO on the way and a slew of scofflaw commissioners either on their way out or already gone.

That brief sense of impending success for DeKalb may now be dissipating as the university is undergoing the initiation process to join the Atlanta fraternity. Hazing is no longer allowed, so the university won’t have to get paddled, drink beer from a funnel or run naked through Five Points.

The Harvard of the South isn’t saying a whole lot about why it wants to join Atlanta other than issuing a vague statement that it wants to bask in the global, international buzz of being in Atlanta as opposed to being right next to Atlanta, as it has for a century.

It did say that annexation “provides consistency and alignment relative to the University’s marketing and branding initiatives.” The ever-image-conscious ATL is big on grandiosity, so Emory’s wordsmiths should fit right in.

The upside for Emory, most assume, is that it hopes to benefit from a half-cent sales tax Atlanta wants to pass this fall in a referendum and get a light rail line from the north-south MARTA line. Traffic around Emory really is terrible, and professors hate gripping their steering wheels in frustration and shouting intellectual obscenities at fellow motorists.

Emory doesn’t provide a lot of property taxes to DeKalb, nor will it take any schools, residents or businesses. But the fear is that this move will set off an annexation frenzy in which central DeKalb gets carved up like the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I.

A statement from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office hints the annexation is more than just spiriting away an institution of higher learning: “If successful, the annexation of this vital corridor would present the rare opportunity to bring a world-class teaching and research institution, strong neighborhoods, hundreds of thriving commercial and industrial businesses and the leading national public health institute of the United States into the city of Atlanta.”

Annexation and cityhood movements are zero-sum games. Cities feast on other entities’ valuable land and leave the scraps behind. The new city of Tucker is already eyeing tax-rich Northlake Mall, Decatur wants DeKalb’s commercial property but not any of its annoying residents, and Brookhaven covets anything of value south of I-85 that’s not nailed down.

Those left behind and not annexed have less of a tax base and either have to pay more in taxes or receive fewer public services.

Bruce MacGregor, a 40-year resident of the historic Druid Hills neighborhood and a former civic association president, thought the announcement smelled of a decision made long ago, what with Emory having a new president coming in.

“It’s a huge prestige blow to DeKalb right when DeKalb is getting its act together,” he said. “I don’t think Emory wanted this getting out.”

Residents are split over whether they think it will cause a rush on annexations or even new cityhood efforts.

“Cityhood is not dead, it’s just resting,” said Amy Parker, a leader of the narrowly defeated LaVista Hills effort. She lives in the Leafmore Hills neighborhood a couple of miles northeast of Emory, as do I. “I’d take Brookhaven over Atlanta,” she added. “We’re going to be in a dead zone.”

Tanya Myers lives in nearby Medlock just north of Decatur and has been active in school efforts. “I think we are seeing a renewal of excitement in DeKalb County,” she said.

Myers worries, however, about “diminishing pools of funding” if neighborhoods and businesses get annexed into Decatur or Atlanta.

There’s a familiar pressure that might start building, she said. “It’s a feeling that it’s going to happen, so you have to pick where you want to go. You want to have some say in it rather than have it shoved down your throat.”

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