A city plan for dealing with youths who sell bottled water in the streets, proposed by Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant and others, will be unveiled by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as soon as July 23, according to the head of the Buckhead Community Improvement District.

Jim Durrett, the CID’s executive director, told his board of directors in a July 22 meeting that he has been working “behind the scenes” with the Atlanta Police Department, the Atlanta Police Foundation and the City Council on the issue. He said the forthcoming plan is a “soup to nuts” approach and implied it will mix a crackdown on criminal behavior with opportunities for entrepreneurship.

Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District.

Michael Smith, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, noted that Bottoms recently named a Youth Entrepreneurship Advisory Council to address the issue, but did not respond to questions about the timing of an announcement.

Some board members of the CID, a self-taxing group of major commercial property owners, expressed concern about the water-sellers. Herbert Ames, the CID treasurer and senior vice president in the Southeast for the retail real estate company EDENS, was skeptical of anything short of a crackdown.

“I would love any clarification on selling water illegally in the streets of Atlanta, how that is not classified as illegal behavior,” said Ames. “It is a matter of time before someone is killed, either by people being hit, one of these kids shooting someone, or a passerby in a car who’s carrying a weapon firing upon them. It is unacceptable this continues … and to say it’s not criminal for them to be doing this in the middle of the road, it’s unacceptable.”

The re-selling of bottled water on the streets has become a booming business across the city, including on such major Buckhead thoroughfares as Peachtree, Piedmont and Lenox roads. The trend also has become controversial for being an unlicensed business conducted within busy streets, and for sales tactics that may be aggressive or criminal.

Citywide, Durrett said, there is concern some youths are “selling other things, not just water,” being “rude,” and making people “feel very uncomfortable and very unsafe.” Some passers-by are “accosted,” and some sellers have “brandished” firearms and fired at each other in disputes over sales spots, he said.

APD recently announced the arrests of two juvenile water-sellers in Buckhead on firearms possession and other charges.

The prioritization of the issue from CID board members was clear.  “I honestly feel like this is the most critical issue facing Buckhead right now,” said Robin Suggs, the general manager of the Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls.

“We are definitely hearing from many hundreds, if not more, in the community” about water-sellers, said CID board chair Thad Ellis, who is a senior vice president at the real estate company Cousins Properties.

But what constitutes a problem and a solution may be sources of friction. The water-selling phenomenon “isn’t cut and dried. It’s complex,” Durrett said.

In his other role as president of the nonprofit Buckhead Coalition, Durrett recently also spoke about the water-sellers, emphasizing police crackdowns, in a Buckhead Business Association meeting. That got pushback from some attendees, who objected to the frequently used term “water boys” for the youths — many of them people of color — as derogatory and called for effective, alternative entrepreneurship programs. In that meeting, Durrett supported such programs conceptually and noted “institutional racism” as a factor.

With the CID board, Durrett focused on the policing and court side, saying that officers at the local Zone 2 precinct will crack down on “clear criminal behavior” by water-sellers, but complaining that the Fulton County juvenile court system is “not cooperating” with detention. A Fulton County spokesperson did not respond to questions about APD allegations that the teenage water-sellers recently arrested in Buckhead were rejected by county juvenile intake officials.

Buckhead CID board chair Thad Ellis.

Ellis aimed to simplify the situation, noting that many water-sellers lack business licenses like those needed by typical street vendors. “To me, that is so simple, just starting there, and that’s not enforced,” he said.

“I really do think the complicating factor is these are juveniles,” Durrett replied. “If they were adults doing this, then I don’t think there would be a problem. The problem is the system within which the juveniles are processed is just spitting them back out again. It’s a fundamental, systemic problem that is going to take other people, wiser than I, to come up [with a solution for].”

Durrett said he believed Bottoms’ announcement would address the concerns cited by Ames and Ellis.

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