Economic Development

Burned By Success

An ingenious development director worked miracles in a small Georgia town. That didn't make the whole town happy.
by | January 2005

Over the past few years, the once threadbare little city of College Park, Georgia, has become one of the hottest communities in metropolitan Atlanta. It is a destination for chic restaurant-goers and upscale home-buyers, the subject of intense interest among developers, a winner of national urban design awards and an object of flattering attention from regional magazines.

The man chiefly responsible for all this is Christopher Jones, who for seven years worked obsessively--first on downtown redevelopment, then as College Park's director of economic development--to overcome years of disintegration and turn the city's location on the doorstep of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport into an asset. By any measure, he succeeded.

Last April, the College Park city council gave Jones his reward: They fired him.

The circumstances are a little mysterious. Jones was away in France, taking his first vacation since 1997. While he was gone, the four- member council went into late-night executive session and opted not to renew his contract. It didn't say why. The mayor and the lone councilman who supported Jones had no notice it was coming. At a jammed, angry meeting the following week, the three politicians in the majority refused to comment on their decision, and since then, they have remained silent on just what it was about the local renaissance that they didn't like.

That has not kept a frustrated and defiantly aroused slice of the public from speculating about their motives. Perhaps, some say, Jones was fired because he's gay. Perhaps, as Jones alleges in a lawsuit he has brought with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the bias was racial: He is white and the council majority is African-American, as is about 80 percent of College Park's population. Perhaps, as Mayor Jack Longino contends, it's because Jones' hard-charging personality rubbed some council members the wrong way. All are conceivable. There is, however, another possibility. Implausible as it seems, Jones may have lost his job precisely because he was so successful.

Jones made College Park the sort of story that would captivate anyone interested in community revitalization: An old inner suburb, left for dead, suddenly discovers that its burdens can be strengths and that it has a beating, vigorous heart after all. This should have led to a happy ending but for one problem: It turns out that for some communities, change for the better can be even more unsettling than collapse.

DOWN AT THE HEELS

A decade ago, anyone in the Atlanta metro area would have guffawed if you'd suggested that the words "change for the better" might one day appear in the same paragraph as "College Park." If people noticed the community at all, it was as a nondescript stretch of offices and low- slung warehouses on the way to and from the airport park-and-ride lot, or as a down-at-the-heels Main Street of pawn shops and wig stores, or as a strip of lube joints, chain hotels and office-supply stores on the airport's edge. If it hit the news, it was generally for the wrong sort of story--a man found slain in a cheap motel room, a triple homicide in one of its apartments.

It did not start out that way, of course. College Park got its name because, back at the turn of the 20th century, it hosted the Southern Baptist College for Girls and the Georgia Military Academy. The first eventually closed, but the military school became Woodward Academy, one of the premier private secondary schools in Georgia and, to this day, a community anchor. Neighborhoods of comfortable Victorian, colonial and Craftsman homes, along with smaller bungalows, rose around downtown and in the city's prosperous northern half, while more modest ranch homes and apartments lined the shaded streets in the working-class and more heavily black southern half--although in 1970, the city was about 85 percent white. Even into the 1980s, Main Street was relatively intact, with its shoe store, hardware store, barber shops, three drugstores and feed store-turned-garden center.

By then, though, the city's plunge had already begun. In the 1970s, the airport--owned by the city of Atlanta--began growing and taking land both for expansion and removal of houses in noise-impacted zones. Until the state legislature changed the law in 1991, Atlanta's Department of Aviation was allowed to take land by eminent domain without the approval of the affected jurisdictions. In the end, it emptied more than 1,000 acres of College Park, razing upper- and middle-income neighborhoods alike. But it did more than that. "They raped and pillaged the city," says Jane Randolph, a neighborhood activist who moved to College Park in 1976. "Not only did they take out families, they took out social capital, they took out the leadership. The churches disintegrated. Civic organizations declined. They took these beautiful Victorian homes and invited nearby fire departments to come set them on fire and practice on them. The city was in a state of acute depression."

Certainly the city's leadership seemed depressed. College Park's officials didn't see much future for it beyond parking lots, warehouses and hotels. A group of homeowners that began organizing in the early 1990s met outright disbelief at City Hall when it suggested the city might try to attract a restaurant. "For 10 years," says Johnny Robinson, one of the city's first black council members, who sat on the body throughout the 1990s, "there was no economic development in College Park. None." Christopher Jones recalls that when he was hired to help develop College Park's downtown business section, he was told by his predecessor that "all you need to do to develop College Park is take a bulldozer and turn it into a parking lot.'"

HIDDEN STRENGTHS

To Jones, with a background in historic preservation and an abiding belief in the value of old buildings and existing community assets, this notion was ridiculous. He had been working on economic development in the small town of Roswell, Georgia, when College Park began casting around for someone to lead its redevelopment of Main Street. He visited, and where others saw affliction, he saw possibility: a community with a small-town feel and an attractive, bargain-priced housing stock just a few minutes from downtown Atlanta by highway; a MARTA transit-line stop just across from Main Street; and, perhaps best of all, some 55,000 airport workers right next door.

"To cure Main Street, you had to get at the roots of the city's problems," he says, "and to do that, you had to take the core assets and build on those. MARTA was seen as a negative because it 'brought in the wrong element,' but you could also say, 'Hey, this place is conveniently located on a MARTA line!' And you may be in the shadow of an airport, but that means you have a huge daytime population base that needs somewhere decent to eat and shop."

By the time Jones was hired as College Park's Main Street director, in 1997, there was an audience for this kind of thinking. The first real test came that year when the airport announced that it intended to run a new, fifth runway right through what remained of the city's historic neighborhoods, taking Woodward Academy along with them. Led by a dogged coalition of up-in-arms citizens and an alarmed academy-- which called in an all-star cast of its alumni--the city fought off the move; the airport agreed instead to shift the runway to its southern end, and that left the way clear for something more constructive to happen downtown.

In truth, the tattered character of Main Street was more a function of the businesses that inhabited its buildings--the pawn shop, the day-labor pool--than of its location or commercial stock. Jones, an immaculately dressed, kinetic man given to direct talk and constant activity, was not the sort to sit back and wait for offers to come to him. He decided the city needed a high-end restaurant, and joined forces with a rising young Atlanta chef named Oscar Morales--who lived in College Park--to install a splashy new presence where the pawn shop had been.

"We had to show the city what was coming," says Jones, "that you could go from a pawn shop to Oscar's, a white-tablecloth place with a South Beach interior. It was the only way to get a niche started and also to get the PR we needed to attract others." It worked. Diners with money to spend flocked to the restaurant, and positive attention quickly followed. "Oscar's is the kind of place that quickens every restaurant-goer's heart because it is such a surprise," gushed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's reviewer in 2001. "Particularly in the moribund Mayberry that is College Park."

With Oscar's full every night, other entrepreneurs started paying attention, and over time, a full stable of eating establishments joined it, including a Middle Eastern restaurant (ironically named Fifth Runway), and an upscale bar and restaurant in the old feed store. Other trendy shops opened as well, creating an easily walkable Main Street that mixes the old--a thrift store and flea market, hair braiding parlors--with the new. As the perception of College Park's growing trendiness took hold, it sparked new interest in residential development and redevelopment throughout the city.

Other forces were working in College Park's favor as well. Long considered the laggard, undesirable quarter for development, the southern part of metro Atlanta had begun booming as the northern suburbs filled up, became expensive and consigned their residents to some of the worst traffic in the nation. Wealthy families from the northern suburbs with kids going to Woodward began to realize they didn't have to put up with a two-hour commute every morning to get their children to school; they started buying houses in College Park, close to the school. The airport, as part of its negotiation over the fifth runway, agreed to help the town build a new convention center between downtown and the south side--and, sometime down the road, to move its centralized car rental facility there and build a people- mover to help travelers get around easily.

Success, of course, has many parents, and you can find in City Hall a carefully couched belief that Jones got more praise for the successes than he was really due. Mayor Jack Longino--who does not have a vote on the council, except to break a tie--insists that a series of council members and city staff deserve credit as well. "I had a developer come and say, 'I want to do this development but Christopher says he wants all the credit for it,'" Longino recalls.

But if you ask around outside City Hall, there is no question about who lay behind College Park's revival. To the new merchants on Main Street, it was Jones who not only lured them there but also made it possible for them to open. "It was difficult working with the city as far as construction and permitting," says Celita Bullard, who converted the old feed store into a restaurant. "I was used to communities with systems and procedures for doing things, and College Park had nothing--they weren't used to development. It was cumbersome. Every time I took in drawings, there was some new requirement or a new person to see. I'd e-mail Christopher and say, 'Could you just tell me what I need to do?'"

Constantly working his cell phone, driving around the region to meet with prospective developers, builders, entrepreneurs and others, Jones made himself the face of a reborn College Park. "Christopher brought a different perspective that had never been brought: seeking development to come into the city, reaching out for it," says former councilman Johnny Robinson. "The economic development environment of College Park changed completely when he arrived."

RESENTMENT

Eventually, however, so did the political environment. In 2003, Tracey Wyatt, a black postal worker, took advantage of a concerted effort to register black voters and narrowly defeated a white incumbent in a ward that combined voters on both the north and south sides. Wyatt, who never made any secret of his antipathy toward Christopher Jones, eventually convinced two of his three colleagues that it was time for a new economic development director.

In a city that is so decidedly African-American, it's a bit surprising that it took until 2003 for a black council majority to emerge. But then, as Johnny Robinson points out, as late as the mid- 1970s "blacks were still standing in long lines to pay their light bills where others--you know who I mean--were allowed to go back and pay at the customer service window." Indeed, it took a lawsuit to un- gerrymander the city's ward map so the first black councilman--Michael Hightower--could get elected, and another lawsuit to compel the city to hold a special election to replace him when he won a seat on the Fulton County Commission.

So there is an understandable historical resonance to the contention that lower-income and black residents of College Park are frequently slighted, and that is essentially what Wyatt argued in defending Jones' midnight removal. "There needs to be affordable housing," Wyatt told the Journal-Constitution a few weeks later. "New homes should be in the broad price range, so whether you're a millionaire or a schoolteacher, you should be able to afford it." Under Jones, he said, neighborhoods in the southern part of the city were being ignored and weren't getting recreation centers, parks or swimming pools.

Dissidents also argued that Main Street's renovations didn't do much for low-income residents, who might not have had much occasion to fork over $25 for an entree at Oscar's. "You have an elected official come in who says, 'I'm going to try to get things done in the south part of the city,' which in this area is probably the most economically disadvantaged of all," says former city manager Scott Miller. "Well, when a new elected official comes in, they have a different set of priorities, and if they can get two more votes, that gets them on the to-do list."

What Jones and his defenders point out is that he was hired to revitalize Main Street, not to build swimming pools or put affordable housing on the south side. As he says, "you build a market first on the strongest assets you have; on the south side, with its low-income population, crime, retail and residential abandonment, the buy-in was going to take longer." In truth, a series of south-side projects that were in the pipeline under Jones--from moderate-income housing developments to a Boeing training facility--either have opened now or are moving forward. A new Wal-Mart just south of the College Park line, the possibility of some new airline training facilities, and a planned upscale condo and town-home development all hold out some promise.

But merchants on the south side warn that unless the city does its part to improve the look and feel of the neighborhood, these won't be enough. "The keys will be having a constant police patrol, better lighting and landscaping, and better sidewalks," says Helen Zaver, who owns a hotel just off Old National Highway and chairs the economic development committee of the Old National Merchants' Association. "In fact, I had a petition to the city council asking for all that, with four pages of signatures. They ignored it. They haven't said a word."

LEADERSHIP VOID

Zaver isn't the only person who is having a hard time understanding where College Park is headed these days. In part, that is because there is no clear leadership at the moment. Jones is gone. Miller, the city manager, left for a job in Florida after becoming tired of the council's micromanagement. "The council wants to run the city, wants to run the departments, and I'm not going to be here for that," he says. Miller, too, has yet to be replaced.

The council majority that fired Jones is also facing some political uncertainty: One of the members has come under fire of late--including a spot as the "Weekly Scalawag" in Atlanta's alternative newsweekly-- for spending some $19,000 of the city's money on travel expenses, compared with $9,700 for the other three council members combined. Tracey Wyatt is facing a bid by the airport to buy out several apartment houses that helped give him his electoral majority but that also happen to lie in a noise-impacted zone for the new fifth runway.

The uncertainty about its direction is not helping College Park. One prospective developer of a long-vacant south-side shopping plaza, who had worked for several years to build a proposal the city council would endorse, finally walked away after the new council changed its mind on the details once too often. And while the overall market south of Atlanta remains white-hot, locals have noticed that houses in College Park are sitting on the market for far longer than they were a year or two ago. "I'd hate to think it was the political climate," says local developer Tony Bondhus, "but you almost have to speculate that it's had something to do with it. You go to a Halloween party and while the kids play, all the parents can talk about is local politics. And every single person interested in a higher-end home in town now asks me about the political climate."

At the same time, Bondhus quickly admits, "No matter what the city council does, that market will be here. If the market wasn't so strong, I wouldn't stay." The truth is, having gotten a leg up from Jones' tenure, College Park may now simply be able to sit back and let developers' interest in the area drive it forward.

The question, of course, is whether that turns out to serve the long- term public good. What got the city where it is now was a combination of market forces and single-minded effort by Christopher Jones, backed up by the city manager and the city council. As Jones argues, good development needs both of those pieces. "The best redevelopment projects and cities that revitalize happen where there's citizen support and it's city-driven," he says. "That's when you get private buy-in to a larger vision. When it's only driven by the private sector, you lose the quality development."

Out in the community, meanwhile, there's a clear sense that College Park needs somebody in charge of helping it grow, and that it could do a lot worse than to hire someone like its most recent development director. "All I know," says Zaver, of the Old National Merchants' Association, "is that if Christopher had been put in charge of Old National from the beginning, it would look a lot different now."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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