The city of Brookhaven includes tidy homes with manicured lawns, some costing millions of dollars, and businesses along gritty Buford Highway, pictured. But what is there for tourists? 
Photo: Brant Sanderlin / AJC 2012 file
Photo: Brant Sanderlin / AJC 2012 file

Torpy at Large: Branding Brookhaven? A blank slate and blank stares

I recently read that Brookhaven will be spending $1.6 million to try to turn that relatively new city into a tourist destination.

It’s the latest in a long string of metro burgs looking to draw visitors to come stay in their towns and drop a little cash.

Now, I’m somewhat familiar with The Haven by the Brook, having spent umpteen years either dropping my kids off at school there or cutting through town to get to work. And there are a few things you notice about the city. Specifically, folks there cut their lawns, trim their hedges and clean out their gutters. Or at least they have someone else do it.

Brookhaven is largely a tidy town, a fine place to live. It did overreach to go down and gobble up gritty Buford Highway because the new city needed a commercial base when incorporating in 2012. But it then quickly worked to change that unique thoroughfare’s vibe.

The AJC story quoted Renée Areng, the new executive director of the Brookhaven Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), saying the money, which comes from the hotel tax, would be used for marketing and branding of Brookhaven.

“Our city has a rich history and so much to offer locals and visitors,” she said, referring to the 7-year-old municipality.

The old, stately neighborhood of Brookhaven is the first planned golf club community in Georgia. That’s kind of neat, I suppose. But as I drove around soaking in the magnificent homes, I encountered a sign saying “Private Road, No Trespassing.” So, I’m not sure if they want tourists nosing about.

I called Areng, who was on a tour of towns Brookhaven would like to emulate — Roswell, Sandy Springs, Marietta and Alpharetta.

“These are the communities that are coming up, places where people want to visit,” she said, adding, “We’re all in competition with the whole world.”

It’s truly a dog-eat-dog world in the never-ending battle to get people to sleep, eat and shop in your town.

The CVB has hired a firm to study the opinions people have (travelers and locals) of Brookhaven.

It seems nothing is emblazoned in the collective psyche.

“What is the unique positioning of Brookhaven?” Areng asked. “People don’t have a succinct opinion.”

Compare that to where Areng recently held a similar position — the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a place that is “positioned.” It’s the Gulf. And the Coast. And in Mississippi.

Here, she said, you’re starting from scratch, which she finds exciting. The Haven is a blank slate, a place that doesn’t have a downtown. The lack of a city center is a challenge that several suburbs are trying to rectify, building civic centers and urban walks and all sorts of live/work/play alternatives.

The Historic Brookhaven neighborhood revolves around golf.
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

I spoke with resident Kathy Forbes and asked what she thought would be cool attractions for tourists. The Swan House, Legoland and the Botanical Gardens, she said.

Um, those are in nearby Atlanta, I said.

Hmm, she said, thinking. The rolling Murphy Candler Park is nice, and Silver Lake, which is kind of hidden, is serene, she said. Also, Town Brookhaven (strip mall meets old-timey downtown) has some restaurants, and the Cinebistro there “is nice if you like to wine and dine and watch a movie.”

Resident Terrell Carsten, a local activist, said, “We all like the bedroom community here. They want a true urban community rather than a suburban community in an urban environment.”

“When I want to go out, I want to go to the city, to Atlanta,” she said. “I don’t want to go up to Johns Creek to see the little thing they have going up there.”

Johns Creek, also a newly created city that’s a nice, tidy and comfortable ‘burb, has all sorts of ambitious designs on a city center and has a visitors bureau. The “Leave the Ordinary Behind; Be the Exception” Johns Creek is spending $423,000 for its convention and visitors bureau.

Sandy Springs, “City Vibe. Neighborhood Charm,” will spend about $1.6 million.

Roswell, “Modern Spirit, Southern Soul,” will spend about $800,000.

Dunwoody will spend $1.7 million.

And Marietta, with a charming square, will spend $300,000.

Oh, yeah, Alpharetta dwarfs them all at $3.3 million.

Town Brookhaven, the closest thing to a downtown in that city. 
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst said the city is “required by state law” to first create a marketing/branding bureau if it wants to use the rest of the hotel tax money for general fund and capital purposes. This saves taxpayers money, he said.

“Pretty much everyone does it,” the mayor said. “It supports the hotels in Brookhaven. The whole point is to bring business to Brookhaven.”

I drove through the city looking for touch points for visitors.

In a faded Buford Highway strip mall is Barkot, a new Ethiopian restaurant. Manager Seble Dinqu said the rent was fair and Brookhaven is not too crowded. “It feels like my hometown. You can get anything you want.”

Slogan here?

Driving northeast, you pass the Rusty Nail tavern with a massive pistol out front. It’s across from the Havana sandwich shop. At the intersection of Druid Hills Road, you have a very odd corner with a Red Roof Inn standing high on a rock outcropping across from a business with a very large, very yellow sign advertising apartments for rent. There are LOTS of apartments on Buford Highway, mostly housing Hispanic immigrants.

Down the road, there’s the Pink Pony, the nude dancing club the city has tried to close (so far unsuccessfully). Tip to city: Great off-the-official books tourist draw. There’s also tons of taquerias.

The Scavenger Hunt on Clairmont Road near Buford Highway in Brookhaven is “iconic,” says its owner, Dan Leathers, who would like it to become a tourist attraction.
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

Near the corner of Buford and Clairmont Road is the “iconic” (so says its owner) Scavenger Hunt, with a bunch of junk outside and cool treasures inside. I must note that it may be the most unique place in the city.

“They want to turn this into Buckhead,” said owner Dan Leathers of the city’s effort to tidy up the area. “Some of the snooty people complain about (items, mostly furniture, stored outside). But some of those snooty people buy their things here.”

Leathers, who has been there since 1980, says an effort to attract tourists would be great. That is, if gentrification doesn’t push him out. Behind his business are the Skyland (From the high 400s!) townhouses.

Hopefully he’ll survive to see the boom that the branding brings.

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