Sam Massell, who served as Atlanta’s latest white mayor over 40 years ago, urged unity between Buckhead and the rest of the city after a mayoral race that had strong racial division in the vote.
“We know that Buckhead’s success, indeed Atlanta’s success, depends on one combined effort, not a dream of divisiveness,” said Massell, who is now president of the Buckhead Coalition, during his annual “State of the Community” address Feb. 22. “I think it’s safe for me to say that with very few exceptions, all Atlantans agree that a city combined as one will be a city of much greater strength and opportunity for success.”
Unity was also the theme of the Buckhead Coalition’s annual luncheon held earlier this year that featured Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as the keynote speaker. The theme was chosen in response to the divisive mayoral election battle between Buckhead resident and former Councilmember Mary Norwood and Bottoms.
Massell, whose organization endorsed Norwood for mayor, urged Buckhead to come together with other parts of the city, using the “Atlanta Together” slogan that was introduced at the annual luncheon.
“As we discuss the ‘State of our Community,’ we see the need and benefit from coming together, this time geographically, north side and south side, to reinforce the whole and enjoy what ‘Atlanta together’ can generate,” he said at the event, which was held at the City Club of Buckhead and hosted by the Buckhead Business Association.
Massell said he helped bring unity to Atlanta during his tenure as Atlanta City Council president in the 1960s through creating a commission intended to help ease racial tensions and address the concerns of the gay community. As mayor, he appointed the first woman City Council member, Panke Bradley, he said.
“There is no stopping us, as we become stronger with every inclusion,” Massell said.
Massell’s 1973 re-election campaign had its own racial tensions, but he said that he did not intend to base the campaign on race. Massell lost that election to Maynard Jackson, who became the city’s first black mayor.
Massell said it took years for the city to overcome the divisions created by that election, but it was helped by the fact that the African American community was celebrating the milestone.
“There was such excitement from the African American community to have elected the first African American mayor,” Massell said. “It overcame frictions to some extent.”
Massell said that nearly half of Atlanta’s tax revenue comes from Buckhead, despite the community’s residents accounting for 20 percent of the city’s population, a statistic he frequently cites.
“You can sense that the tail is wagging the dog,” he said.
Norwood voiced concerns about this statistic after she lost the mayoral election at the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods January meeting, during which she urged Buckhead residents to press the new administration on whether the neighborhood is getting its fair share of city-funded improvements.
While there is no coordinated movement for Buckhead to leave Atlanta and be its own city, Massell said the idea is brought up occasionally by residents and the media. He pushed back against the idea.
“The obvious result would be a headline on Wall Street of Atlanta bankrupting,” he said. “That would bring the development and progress and growth of Atlanta to a standstill, which would obviously damage Buckhead.”
He said the state of Buckhead remains healthy and the area is attracting the country’s leading developers that are adding office space, hotel rooms, condos, apartments and entertainment facilities. The success of Buckhead affects the entire metro area, a responsibility he encouraged the audience to take seriously.
“Keep in mind that how Buckhead succeeds affects the entire city of Atlanta, and its success sets the tone for the entire region of well over six-million citizens. Take this responsibility seriously,” Massell said.
In response to a question from an audience member, Massell praised Bottoms’ performance so far and said she supports Buckhead and the coalition’s efforts.
“It’s really too early to grade her, even if she’s excellent, but she’s been good so far. She’s supportive of Buckhead,” he said.
Another audience member asked about the plan to build to a park over Ga. 400 spearheaded by the Buckhead Community Improvement District, which Massell and the Buckhead Coalition helped create. He said the CID’s mission is to relieve traffic congestion, and taxes the CID members voluntarily pay into the CID shouldn’t be used to fund the park while traffic is still a problem.
“There’s nobody more appreciate of park than I. Parks are wonderful, but don’t take tax money from people in Buckhead to build a park as long as there is still traffic in Buckhead,” Massell said.
The CID has created an independent nonprofit to oversee the park’s creation, but the CID could still help fund the park through donations to that nonprofit.