OPINION: A city called ‘Buckhead’? There’s already one of those.

A buck's head mounted at Bonner's Restaurant, Buckhead, Ga.

Combined ShapeCaption
A buck's head mounted at Bonner's Restaurant, Buckhead, Ga.

BUCKHEAD, Ga. -- Years before the current effort to split Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood away from the City of Atlanta, former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell traveled to the little town of Buckhead, Ga. about 65 miles east of Atlanta, with an offer to buy the city’s charter.

Steve Bryant was the mayor of Buckhead then, and he recounted the story of Massell, then the head of the Buckhead Coalition, bringing two staff members and a framed floral print from the neighborhood as a gift.

“We had 210 people who lived inside the city limits, so I told them that their price for Buckhead, if they wanted to buy our city charter, was going to be $210 million, plus another $10 million for the mayor’s office,” Bryant said with a laugh. “They said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and went back to Atlanta.”

Massell remembers that day just the way Bryant described it. But Massell saw buying Buckhead’s charter as a branding effort to strengthen a neighborhood in Atlanta —not as a way to break the city of Atlanta apart.

“We felt that it would benefit people in our Buckhead, which we spent a great deal of effort branding, as well as benefit the residents there, if we could get that straightened out,” Massell said.

That was in the early 2000′s, they both recalled, but the idea for Buckhead cityhood has cropped up once again, this time with the proposed name “Buckhead City” and without the cash offer attached.

The town in Morgan County still isn’t interested.

“We don’t approve of ‘Buckhead’ in their name because that is our unique name and we don’t want anybody else to use it,” said current Buckhead Mayor Drew Miller, who added that the entire city council also opposes another city named Buckhead in Georgia.

“We had it first and we’ve been around longer,” Miller said.

To the mayor’s point, the origins for the use of the Buckhead name there informally date to the Revolutionary War, when a local hunter killed a deer and mounted the buck’s head to a tree as a signpost.

Officially, a Morgan County tax digest referenced “the Buckhead Militia District” in 1809, and the State of Georgia recorded the charter for the Town of Buckhead in 1908.

“The name ‘Buckhead’ is over 250 years old,” said state Rep. Dave Belton, the Republican who represents Buckhead in the state House.

“It’s not something we dreamed up yesterday.”

Although the Buckhead City proposal has strong support among his Republican colleagues in the Legislature, Belton opposes the creation of Buckhead City for several reasons. Among them are his worries about robbing local control from Buckhead, Ga. and the Buckhead neighborhood, whose lawmakers all oppose a Buckhead City.

He also pointed to the confusion that already exists between the city of Buckhead and the neighborhood by the same name.

“It’s already a problem and this will make it more so,” he said.

Residents in the original Buckhead say they routinely interact with confused people sending mail, calling for directions, or arriving at city hall when a GPS device has inadvertently sent them to Buckhead, Ga..

“I get calls constantly from people wanting business licenses,” said Cheryl Saffold, the city clerk, who was wearing a t-shirt that read, “The Real Buckhead 30625,” on the day I visited this week.

“I ask where their business is located. When they say Peachtree Street, I say, ‘You need to call the city of Atlanta.’”

Cheryl’s husband, Seaby, is from a farming family that was one of the first to settle in Morgan County. He is against Buckhead City, too.

“I feel like our Buckhead was the original one, but they’ve got the money,” Saffold said of the wealthy Atlanta residents’ multi-million dollar P.R. and lobbying effort at the Georgia General Assembly.

Barbara Bell Tyson, who was born during the Great Depression in Buckhead, where she lives today, and says Georgia should only have one Buckhead.

“The reason I think they want to keep the name up there is that ‘Buckhead’ has an elite connotation. And we certainly don’t have an elite connotation,” she laughed “I think that they need to leave our name here.”

As Tyson describes it, Buckhead was a boom town when the local railroad ferried people between Atlanta and Augusta with an overnight stop in town. But local fires, new interstates, and young people heading for the big city have changed all that.

Handsome brick buildings now sit vacant and boarded up downtown. Weekenders headed for Lake Oconee zip through without stopping. For the city of 178 people, the name “Buckhead” is one of the most important things the town has left.

“They’re trying to take our name. They’re trying to take our symbol of the deer head and they’re taking everything that was our history and making it theirs,” said Nancy Brock, who was born in Buckhead. “Buckhead is not for sale.”

I asked Bill White, the CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, about the very real concerns of the Buckhead community, and he sent a text message in response. “We are in talks with the leadership of Buckhead, Ga. about [a] wonderful and mutually beneficial partnership,” he wrote. “We will be similar named areas. But legally different.”

Mayor Miller said he’s never heard from White or anyone related to Buckhead City. “I haven’t talked to anybody from up there.”

There is no law in Georgia preventing two cities from having the same name, but it’s never been done before.

An effort in 2014 to call a new city in North Fulton “Riverside” eventually created Johns Creek, but only after the mayor of the existing City of Riverside in Colquitt County appealed to former House Speaker Mark Burkhalter to change his legislation and let the original Riverside remain the only one of its kind.

According to the Moultrie Observer, Burkhalter agreed after the city’s legislative delegation went to bat for it.

The arguments for Riverside then were similar to the arguments of Buckhead residents today — that being smaller and less wealthy than the Atlanta crowd shouldn’t diminish their concerns.

I asked Belton what the worst-case scenario is for Buckhead if the Buckhead City Committee continues with its plans and the General Assembly passes a bill to move the Buckhead City proposal to a referendum in 2022.

He said for all of the problems it would create for Buckhead, the worst case would affect many more people than their little town.

“The worst case is every single town in America that has a wrong side of the tracks will say, ‘Well, why don’t I create my little Utopia right here?’” Belton said. “The whole point of America is to unify. Here we are dividing people off? No. I think we have enough tribalism already.”