Three years and one day ago, residents gathered at Banneker High School to witness history. South Fulton’s first-ever city council was sworn in to uphold the rules of governance that would go into effect at midnight.
It was a pivotal moment in a multi-year battle for self-determination, but also the beginning of a strenuous uphill climb. And despite the optics, for the most part, city leaders and residents have been up to the challenge.
For all of South Fulton’s woes, which haven’t been much different from those faced by other new cities, there have been far more wins.
Thinking of a Master Plan
At the onset, elected officials and staff mounted a major effort to transition employees, services and assets from Fulton County in just two years. While it was often a contentious process and didn’t yield everything on leaders’ wish lists, in the end the city came away with big wins like Wolf Creek Amphitheater and Southwest Arts Center.
“Our crowning achievement in the first three years has been how we worked together to become self-sufficient as quickly as we did and how we landed on our feet in such a short period of time,” said Mayor William “Bill” Edwards. He also pointed out that while the city took on a year-long loan to cover start-up costs, it was repaid in 11 months.
With the transition complete, officials quickly moved forward with casting a vision for the city’s future, including tackling troublesome zoning issues that have created a mountain of problems over the years. Councilwoman Dr. Catherine Rowell cites this work as a source of pride.
“I am most proud of the planning work that the city has undertaken to help cast a clear vision for the direction we want to take the city, said Rowell. “Over the course of the last year, we’ve developed a strategic plan and an economic development plan, and we are finalizing the rewrite of our zoning ordinance.”
And while the young city has a long way to go towards the implementation of its new plans, it’s a strong start.
“As I often mentioned when seeking this office, the first couple of years would be establishing the foundation,” said Councilwoman Carmalitha Gumbs. “We have done just that. We transitioned services ahead of time, established outstanding public safety departments, a well-functioning municipal court, and hired amazing leaders to help with delivering services to than 100,000 residents. Now it is time to grow.”
Here We Grow Again
A phrase that has been used when describing South Fulton is “often neglected.” While other cities in the metro area have seen a boom in economic growth, South Fulton has seen significant residential property development with little else to support residents’ desired lifestyle. But hopefully, that’s soon to change with resources dedicated specifically to the city’s economic development and proximity to Aerotropolis and other promising projects.
“We are lasered focused on strategic economic development and building upon the mission and vision of why this city was established,” Gumbs said.
The city has already celebrated the grand opening of its first hotel, the Fairfield Inn & Suites, with two more on the way. A new Publix shopping center is scheduled to be completed this fall. Grants have been awarded to develop plans to create more walkable, connected communities. Two Main Street programs have been launched in the Old National and Red Oak Districts to help revitalize the areas. The South Fulton Development Authority has been launched – albeit not without controversy.
And it’s not just about courting big business in South Fulton. Residents have joined the city’s growing force of small business owners, hanging their own shingles to launch restaurants, fitness centers and more. To its credit, the city has committed to supporting existing and aspiring business owners with the launch of CollabSouth, an initiative in two locations that delivers on two big asks from citizens, co-working facilities and increased public safety presence.
The city is also demonstrating to those looking to invest that it has skin in the game. Officials approved $17 million in capital improvements and a redevelopment plan that targets 13 distinct areas in the city.
Additionally, a parks master plan is underway to capitalize on the city’s massive recreation assets. The parks department now also includes cultural affairs programming, with hopes of bringing a wider array of events and activities for residents to enjoy.
“We fought to be a city where we can live, work and play,” said Councilwoman Helen Z. Willis. “We are working hard as a government to make sure that this is a place that will enhance your quality of life.”
It’s a promise that residents are counting on officials to deliver on.
“It’s my hope that we continue to work hard to bring development opportunities to our city that will provide jobs, entertainment and revenue that enhances the lives of all that live in our city,” said Kenneth F. Joe.
In addition to the development that some have requested for years, residents hope that South Fulton’s economic development plans include positioning the city as a leader and innovator, not just regionally, but also nationally.
“I’m looking forward to the City of South Fulton becoming the lead orchestrator across the country of smart city technology,” said Mandisha Thomas. The city passed a smart city resolution just three months after its incorporation.
Carving out a New Identity
Some fear that the development that residents so desperately want will be hampered by South Fulton’s lack of identity. It’s often lumped in with every other city in the southern portion of Fulton County. And South Fulton, whether it’s the city or the region, takes frequent beatings in the evening news.
But the bigger stories paint South Fulton as a city that’s not afraid to take on national issues and go to bat for those who have been abandoned by the system. The city has been highlighted for putting policies in place to combat human trafficking and “banning the box” to give those with checkered pasts a fresh start at gainful employment. It also joined a list of progressive cities taking steps to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession, making the punishment more similar to a traffic citation.
A sticking point that remains is how the city sees itself. After a failed attempt at the city’s renaming, a revived effort still stirs tension. And cultural identity is also a sore spot.
Councilman Khalid is known for calling South Fulton “the blackest city in America.” And while it’s estimated that the city’s population is over 90 percent African American, it’s a moniker that makes some residents and elected officials uneasy. Some think that it will alienate and divide, while others think it’s an identity to be embraced and an opportunity to affirm excellence.
“I look forward to us proudly claiming our place in history as the first major city founded by blacks,” said Rafer Johnson. “We will only grow into the Serena or LeBron of cities by being the best. We don’t embrace mediocrity.”
Taking a Bite out of Crime
An issue that has garnered more consensus is the need for a more aggressive approach to public safety. It’s been many residents’ top concern, and their complaints have not gone unheard. Three South Fulton Police Department mini precincts have opened, and a new police headquarters is underway. More than 60 officers were added to the force in 2019 alone. Investments have been made to shore up resources to combat a growing gang problem and partnerships with statewide agencies have given the department added resources to take down major criminal operations that have plagued the city for years.
Under the leadership of Police Chief Keith Meadows, the department engaged Georgia Tech scholars to realign and expand the city’s police beats. The effort had not been undertaken since the 1970s.
“Assigning those new officers to more, smaller beats will help us reduce response times significantly,” Meadows said. “Our officers work 12-hour shifts. They basically are batting back and forth between 911 calls. We want to reduce that to about a third of a shift. That will allow us enough time to concentrate on proactive patrols.”
The outbreak of COVID-19 has revealed a few chinks in the city’s armor, particularly a lack of financial resources and reserves. But it has also highlighted first class first responders who haven’t just come to the rescue, but have been first in line to help celebrate milestones with residents who are isolated from the world and in need of a morale boost. It’s a level of compassion that’s often found in South Fulton, but also often overshadowed.
“Our first responders are first rate and have given their all to this city during this trying time,” said Councilman Corey Reeves. “Our best accomplishment, to me, is making this a city where they want to work to ensure the safety of the community and where they are in a city committed to look after their overall well-being.”
The city’s response to the pandemic has also showcased City Manager Odie Donald II’s leadership and a stellar staff. Response has been swift and calculated. And to the city’s best ability, every best practice has been employed.
It’s well-documented, and often stated that South Fulton has had its fair share of missteps and outright debacles. Costly and lengthy public hearings, councilmember feuds and inappropriate spending are just a few of the issues that have incited the ire of the public.
Many had high hopes for the city, and the verdict is still out on whether it will meet their expectations.
“As a community organizer during the cityhood campaign I met citizens from all over South Fulton that put their hopes in it becoming the gateway to the world,” said Damita Chatman. “I know we will be the gateway to the world and a city that those who worked hard for it can be proud of.”
Mayor Edwards says residents’ expectations are a driving force in how he and his colleagues carry out their duties.
“I am excited about our work as a strong, progressive city that’s focused on being financially stable, while delivering world-class service to our residents,” Edwards said, “Every day, they put their faith in us to be the most-prudent stewards and every day we work hard to live up to that expectation.”
And while everyone has a role to play in South Fulton’s success, residents like Willie Davis say it’s critical not to lose sight of the importance of “working together to build a great city.”
“Three years later, I still believe that,” he said. “Our leaders and citizens are actively involved in moving the City of South Fulton upward and forward. Let’s continue.”
A Legacy for Sons and Daughters
Today, many will reflect on the significance of cityhood, how far the city has come and how far it has to go. But for others, like Councilmen Reeves and Khalid, and the city’s newest centenarian, Hattie Young, South Fulton didn’t start with the notion of cityhood. Today, South Fulton’s sons and daughters will celebrate a milestone in the history of a place that has been their home and their parents’ home for decades.
For them, the chapter of cityhood is an opportunity to reinvest in and leave a lasting mark on the place that raised them. It’s a family inheritance that will hopefully continue to grow in value.
“I look forward to seeing the continued growth of this young city that I’m proud to call home, and where I was born and raised,” said Councilman Reeves. “Together we will truly make this the place where you want to be.”
The City of South Fulton will mark three years with a virtual celebration starting today at 6 p.m. Visit SouthFultonCelebrates.com to join the fun.
Photo: Officials, residents and supporters gathered earlier this year to celebrate the swearing-in of city councilmembers for a new term.