DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond touted unity as the force behind local resurgence, and cited his “odd couple” partnership with Dunwoody Mayor Denis Shortal as key bridge-building, in a special “State of the County” address to business leaders April 25.
Adding to the symbolism, the event – hosted by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and the policy and lobby group the Council for Quality Growth – was not only held in Dunwoody, but in very same Crowne Plaza Ravinia hotel ballroom where the city’s own annual “state of” address was held just two weeks ago. More than 600 business and political figures attended, including Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst and other officials from that city.
“One DeKalb, one Georgia, one America,” said Thurmond. “That’s my vision. That’s my hope. That’s my promise.”
Shortal, who received one of two W.W. King Bridge Builder Awards whose winners were selected personally by Thurmond, praised the county that his city famously – or infamously, depending on political viewpoints – incorporated to get an arm’s length away from in 2008.
“We’re DeKalb County. Be proud of it,” Shortal urged the crowd. “Don’t sit there and say, ‘Oh, DeKalb County…’ Pump your chest, hit it!”
“No North and South, no black and white, all of that stuff – no Republican and Democrat,” Shortal added about the new era in DeKalb. And alluding to a previous comment of Thurmond’s about everyone using the same water system, Shortal repeatedly noted with something of an anti-segregation-era air that today we all are “drinking out of the same fountain.”
The enthusiastic crowd response showed how much Thurmond, since his 2016 election, has turned around DeKalb’s reputation from years of scandals over corruption and incompetence. The award to Shortal also underscored a bit of political uncertainty over the future of Dunwoody partnership, as Shortal recently announced he will not run for re-election this year.
Thurmond described the state of the county in monumental terms. “DeKalb is rising,” he said, adding at another point, “Let the word go forward that the sleeping giant that has existed in north metro Atlanta has awakened.”
He cited a recently voter-approved special local option tax for a bevy of infrastructure improvements; higher property values along with deep, five-year homeowner property tax reductions; the continued success of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport on the Chamblee-Brookhaven border; and the boom of transit-oriented business development in Perimeter Center.
Thurmond hammered home his point that all of those successes – past, but mostly present – are due to unifying political efforts. He praised the current county Board of Commissioners for “understanding that divisive, zero-sum politics is a losing proposition.”
He noted that DeKalb became a founding county member of MARTA about 50 years ago. He said that while other counties continue to debate transit, DeKalb is enjoying ever-larger economic paybacks. And, he said, “we owe it to those who would not allow themselves to become prisoners of narrow, mean-spirited, partisan politics.”
The theme carried through allusions to DeKalb’s corruption scandals. “We have learned some difficult and painful lessons because of past mistakes, missteps, failures. We have learned some hard truths about ourselves,” Thurmond said, but added there’s another lesson: “Learn from the past, but don’t dwell on it. …There are some whose minds are still stuck in 2013.”
Working with local cities was crucial to such efforts as the SPLOST, and Thurmond particularly praised the support from Dunwoody. He said was told “that literally, hell would freeze over before it happened… I wasn’t there, so hell might have frozen over.”
While he and Shortal “might be the odd couple in DeKalb County,” Thurmond said, the relationship with the mayor works because “he’s about people and not politics.”
“I trust this man…. We’ve got somebody here that can lead us into tomorrow,” Shortal said in return.
Thurmond acknowledged some ongoing problems in the county, including long-delayed sewer repairs that are going beyond a consent decree’s deadline; he attempted to downplay the situation as 13 repeatedly sewer-spouting manholes out of 70,000 and that he’s order an end to that “foolishness.”
Crime is another concern, especially murders of young black men. Thurmond says that comes down to better job opportunities. “The pimp and the drug dealer and the gangbanger shouldn’t be the only one recruiting our kids for a job,” he said.
The event had ticket prices running $65 and up, and many sponsors that do business with the county, including American Medical Response, which has been embroiled in a Dunwoody-vs.-DeKalb dispute over ambulance response times. However, Thurmond struck a populist tone, saying he was making the county about “the people” and not about himself or lobbyists. He is scheduled to hold a second “State of the City,” free and open to the general public, on April 27, 10 a.m., at Greenforest Community Baptist Church in Decatur.
Thurmond gave another Bridge Builder Award to Egbert Perry, CEO of Integral Group, a major developer involved in such projects as Doraville’s massive Assembly mixed-use complex.
Among the officials giving introductions were county Commissioner Jeff Rader and Ann Hanlon, executive director of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts and chair of the board at the Council for Quality Growth.