Dilapidated buildings that have been boarded up for years, automotive shops with piles of tires, outdated shopping centers and cracked concrete — Veterans Memorial Highway in the proposed city of Mableton is ripe for redevelopment, cityhood advocates say.
Voters in the proposed city’s boundaries will decide in the coming weeks whether to incorporate into a city. The “city lite” proposal includes few services — planning and zoning, parks, sanitation and code enforcement — which supporters believe will spur development and help transition the area.
William Wilson, who grew up in Mableton and lives there now, said the area has remained the same since he was a child, except now the bowling alley he loved as a kid is gone.
Credit: Jenni Girtman
Credit: Jenni Girtman
“The only new property that’s here is the Quick Trip,” said Wilson, a cityhood supporter and member of the South Cobb Alliance and Mableton Yes group. “Every one of these other buildings has been here since I was my son’s age, six.”
Wilson said giving Mableton local control over code enforcement and planning will lead to the election of city leaders who are more invested in the community. That, Wilson said, will mean addressing “the real-time, day-to-day issues that surround this area.”
But opponents say remaining unincorporated and working with the county officials, who have a much larger budget than the city would, is a better solution.
State Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Powder Springs), whose district includes the northern part of the proposed city, said Mableton simply doesn’t have the tax base to perform services better than the county government.
“In order to spur economic development, it’s usually a public-private partnership,” Wilkerson said. “Where are you going to get the money from to spur the public side of it? You’re not going to have it, I mean unless you raise taxes.”
Early voting started Oct. 17 for the Nov. 8 election. Only voters who live within the proposed city limits — including some residents with Marietta, Smyrna and Austell addresses in unincorporated Cobb — will see the referendum on their ballot.
The push for local control
Mableton is the last Cobb city proposal standing from earlier this year after voters rejected proposals for cities of East Cobb, Lost Mountain and Vinings in May. Mableton also reflects a pattern seen in all corners of the county: some residents want local control over zoning and development.
But in Mableton, cityhood supporters aren’t fighting to protect themselves from overdevelopment. Rather, supporters want more economic development, and more government attention to an area that has been historically underserved and overlooked.
“One of the challenges of South Cobb is you don’t get the same representation as other parts of the county,” said Littie Brown, a business owner who has lived in Mableton since 2014. “I think there’s great opportunity for development and businesses. You’ve got some major streets they’d be able to update.”
A dead-end street lined with automotive businesses full of wrecked cars piled up on the grass and sidewalks is just one example of code violations the county has “turned a blind eye to” in Mableton, Wilson said.
Credit: Jenni Girtman
Credit: Jenni Girtman
“It’s just stagnant. And it has been stagnant,” Wilson said. “It’s very typical of what we deal with in this area where there’s a bunch of promises, but there’s no follow-through, and it’s frustrating.”
The proposed city limits include the southernmost corner of the county up to Hurt Road past the East-West Connector between the cities of Austell and Smyrna. If approved, the city would be the largest in Cobb with a population of around 78,000 and a median household income of about $60,000.
“It’s a very broad mix of lower-income housing all the way up to the millions,” Wilson said.
It is a diverse area with a majority Black population. A city council would give residents one representative per 13,000 people, rather than one county commissioner per 192,000 people.
“Mableton is a great community and a great place to raise a family,” said Curtis Barkley, an eight-year resident of the area. “People know you by your name, and that’s important ... Mableton will be a great city with the right people in charge.”
The 2020 feasibility study suggests Mableton can afford to provide the proposed services without raising taxes on city residents. However, opponents say the county would have to raise taxes to make up for the lost funds. Cobb officials estimate the county would lose approximately $10.8 million in annual revenue if the city of Mableton is created.
‘A vision without a plan’
While the Mableton cityhood referendum passed through the Legislature earlier this year without much partisan debate, some community members have now organized against the movement after realizing they, too, were in the proposed city despite being outside of “Mableton proper.”
Christie Lynn is a resident in unincorporated Cobb near Smyrna who was drawn into the Mableton city limits. She helped organize a nonpartisan group to oppose cityhood called Preserve South Cobb.
Since Chairwoman Lisa Cupid and Commissioner Monique Sheffield were elected in 2020, the county now has leadership from South Cobb who understand the needs of the area and are working to address them, Lynn said.
“Maybe at one point cityhood seemed like a necessity, but it almost seems obsolete now,” she said. “I think that people were feeling neglected. But now we have someone who is leading the county with South Cobb in mind, with the idea of bringing this area along with the rest of the county.”
Lynn said many residents who live in Smyrna, Austell and Marietta postal codes who aren’t part of the Mableton community would prefer to stay unincorporated, but they were drawn into the proposed city, which said seems like “a vision without a plan.”
“Cobb County is desirable because of the low tax rate and the good services that we get from the county,” Lynn said. “We’re hearing from people outside of traditional Mableton who feel disenfranchised and feel like they don’t understand why they’re part of this.”
Cityhood critics also say not enough information has been given to the public.
ShaVonne McCants, the owner of a catering business and a 20-year resident in Mableton, hadn’t heard about the cityhood movement at all.
“It hasn’t been explained enough,” she said. “If it’s not broken, why are we messing with it? I haven’t had a need that hasn’t been met. We’ve never had a call that hasn’t been answered.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com