When Andre Dickens is sworn in as Atlanta’s 61st mayor on Jan. 3, 2022, he will be tasked with reuniting a city that’s grappled with a violent crime wave.
Just a week later, the Georgia General Assembly will kick off its 2022 session, where a high-profile discussion is expected to ensue — the effort to break Buckhead off from Atlanta and form a new city.
State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, on Nov. 18 prefiled a bill that could lead to the creation of “Buckhead City.” If approved by state legislators, a referendum would be placed on the November 2022 ballot asking Buckhead residents to vote on whether or not to incorporate.
Cityhood supporters say an independent Buckhead would tackle crime issues by hiring its own police force. But opponents say that breaking off would be disastrous to Atlanta and the region, impacting its finances, education system, bond ratings and national reputation.
Perhaps no prior Atlanta mayor has dealt with such a division in the city, said political expert Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell Chair in Political Science for University of Georgia’s School of Public & International Affairs.
“Certainly, no mayor previously has faced this kind of threat,” he said. “That the city may lose a chunk of its population, its tax base … this is a very new challenge that he faces.”
In addressing the Buckhead cityhood effort, Bullock said Dickens would likely make “a play for time,” meaning he would come in and ask for time to make impactful changes.
“He can’t come in and flip a switch,” he said. Dickens may say “Give me a chance to see what I can do as a new chief executive,” Bullock said. “This might be an argument which would resonate well with some members of the legislature.”
Bullock also said Dickens’ broader strategy could be to repair relations with the state government. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has had a “frayed” relationship with Gov. Brian Kemp, he said.
“Brian might be quite receptive to those kinds of overtures,” Bullock said. “If it’s good for Atlanta, it’s probably good for the rest of the state. Atlanta is the huge economic driving force in the state.”
Plus, if Dickens is unsuccessful with the state legislature, his “last hope of preventing a vote” on the formation of Buckhead City would be for Kemp to veto the legislation, he said.
Dickens didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But the mayor-elect has opposed the cityhood effort throughout his campaign.
“This proposed divorce is going to be an unnecessarily expensive one for both spouses, and the children will be who will suffer the most,” Dickens said during an October candidate forum, referencing a $230 million annual loss for Atlanta Public Schools if Buckhead were to split off. That stat came from a study paid for by the Buckhead Coalition, a cityhood opponent.
Dickens has said his priority is addressing crime through his “Safe Streets Atlanta” plan, which includes hiring 250 officers in his first year as mayor.
He has also said he will be a hands-on mayor who is visible in the Buckhead community. “I’ll be very present … we’ll make sure that Buckhead feels heard.”
Opponents of the cityhood effort said they feel optimistic about the new leadership.
“I am very confident that Andre Dickens is the leader Atlanta needs,” said Billy Linville, a spokesman for the Committee for a United Atlanta, an opposition group led by former state representative Edward Lindsey and attorney Linda Klein. “Addressing the rise in violent crime and keeping our city united are his top priorities. He will be meeting with Buckhead residents and business leaders to listen, learn, and lead. I think the entire city will unite behind Mayor Dickens and that our best days lie ahead.”
Dickens is invited to join a Dec. 8 fundraiser for the Committee, hosted by some of the city’s most prominent business leaders, including Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, UPS CEO Carol Tomé, and Metro Atlanta Chamber President and CEO Katie Kirkpatrick.
Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District and president of the Buckhead Coalition, said Dickens is committed to “lead, listen and attack” the challenges facing Buckhead.
“He has a great deal of energy and integrity, and I’m confident he will address the issues we all care about,” Durrett said in an email statement. “In regard to those who are pushing to break Atlanta apart, I urge the people to give Mayor Dickens a chance. Atlanta has always come together in times of need. And that’s what we must do today.”
Another cityhood opponent, Kevin Green, president and CEO of the Midtown Alliance, said it’s “time to lock arms and work together to solve problems and improve people’s lives.”
He said Dickens understands that addressing crime isn’t just about hiring more police officers. “It’s also investing in long-neglected communities … and it’s working closely with Fulton County and the D.A.,” Green said. “It’s bringing people along in an intentional collaboration … as we move toward unified action on justice and justice reform. So this is an ‘all of the above’ moment.”
The Buckhead City Committee, the group spearheading the cityhood effort, is showing no signs of slowing down. In an email statement Wednesday morning, CEO and Chairman Bill White, the face of the movement, said the mayoral election made it “clear to the families of Buckhead that our priorities of safety, education, infrastructure and zoning are no longer aligned with those in Atlanta’s City Hall.”
White added that voter turnout in Buckhead was at an all-time low. “Buckhead is ready to and will vote yes for its independence on November 8, 2022,” he said.
Update: This story was updated with comments from Kevin Green with the Midtown Alliance.