DeKalb County: Melting Pot Economy

International projects and urban amenities

It’s difficult to imagine a more successful example of many different cultures melting together seamlessly than DeKalb County.

Noisy Fulton County’s next-door neighbor is one of the state’s best places to live, thanks to a combination of quality of life initiatives and a shift in its demographic base from elderly citizens and commuters to a concentration of immigrant families, with specialized commercial needs catering to dozens of ethnicities – Laotian, Latino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Croatian, Nigerian among them.

The popular spot for global villagers has also attracted young families seeking a worldly education, as an intown residential shift spreads from downtown Atlanta to close-in areas like Decatur and Avondale Estates. A new emphasis on economic development at the county level has made DeKalb savvier: Chamblee’s International Village, a half million square foot, $70-$90 million mixed-use project expected to create 2,700 jobs, demonstrates the transformation that’s rocking the region from Dunwoody to Lithonia.

“The big difference of local government, is that this is where the rubber meets the road,” says County Administrator Richard Stogner, formerly known for serving as a deputy commissioner at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. “We never get bored – there’s always something. But that’s OK, because if it’s one thing I can’t do, it’s nothing.”

DeKalb does have its albatross – actually two. The MARTA transit system may help the county preserve its beautiful trees in the face of mounting pressure to develop residential properties, but this blessing is also a burden, county leaders say, affording DeKalb “underdog” status in the race among Metro Atlanta counties to provide the best services.

While Cobb and Gwinnett swell coffers with 8 percent sales taxes, DeKalb makes do with 7 percent – of which 4 percent goes to the state, 1 percent to the school system, 1 percent to the Homestead Option Sales Tax (HOST) and 1 percent to MARTA, (Fulton County also supports MARTA, but other suburban counties do not). The same goes for Grady Hospital, which is funded by DeKalb and Fulton, but has the only Level One Trauma Center within a 100-mile radius of Atlanta.

“With our 7 percent sales tax, we have to pay $110 million for MARTA and $21 million for Grady Hospital [annually],” says County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones. “We never see that money, while other counties have $100,000 budgets.”

Still, MARTA gives DeKalb some unique advantages – more affordable housing, for instance, which is likely to become an increasing problem for parts of the metro area and state where firemen and police can no longer afford to live where they work. As the beleaguered transit agency sells off land and parking lots, these become ideal for mixed-use, mixed-income, high density developments adjacent to MARTA stations like Kensington (in east DeKalb, on Memorial Drive), Chamblee (near International Village) and even downtown Decatur (which has started “The Little Dig” to accommodate more mid-rises).

DeKalb boasts a thriving health care community – anchored by Emory University Hospital, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Veterans Administration Hospital, and four other hospitals, including the new DeKalb Medical Center at Hillandale in Lithonia – making it attractive to clean, high-dollar industries like bioscience and health supplies. Finally, the county has several thousand acres of greenspace and plans to aggressively acquire more. The combination of MARTA, greenspace and health care put DeKalb ahead of the Metro Atlanta pack in attracting quality development, as the population keeps rising.

Much of this recent “cha-ching” sound can be credited to the county’s leadership. DeKalb’s tax base is slightly off – 55 percent residential and 45 percent commercial – and creating a balance is paramount in a county dependent on HOST. In any given year, voters can choose to use a minimum of 80 percent of the funds for property tax relief and a maximum of 20 percent for infrastructure improvements. (DeKalb was first in the nation to adopt the tax, back in 1997.)

Jones – a high-profile former state representative – hired the county’s first economic development director, Maria Mullins, and convinced voters to pass a $125 million bond for greenspace in 2001.

Improvements And Issues

The county has since made improvements at Stonecrest Mall (in Southeast DeKalb, near Lithonia) and Perimeter Center (in the far northwestern sector). Both areas have flourished: a $40 million flyover bridge at Perimeter, funded with help from the Perimeter Community Improvement District, brought $300 million in investment.

“Companies were moving up 400 once their lease expired. These pedestrian-oriented improvements will keep existing business and bring in new business,” Stogner says. Road improvements on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard also kept General Motors from closing, saving nearly 4,000 jobs, he adds.

“DeKalb County is about 80 percent developed, and 85 percent of the county is located outside the city limits,” of Decatur, Clarkston, Stone Mountain, Lithonia, Tucker, Atlanta, Avondale Estates and Dunwoody, Jones says. “We’re looking at big challenges, and we’re tackling the bigger stuff.” This includes transportation, of course, but also some sticky infill issues currently plaguing the county’s inside-the perimeter neighborhoods.

The current “tear-down” trend – in which small, ranch-style homes are replaced by “mini-mansions,” awkwardly-angled townhomes or cluster homes that take up most if not all of their lots – has mobilized civic groups (across the country as well as in DeKalb) to protest with yard signs and Internet campaigns. For these valuable inside-the-perimeter neighborhoods pressured to turn high-density, homes without yards are considered blemishes, threatening the appeal of adjacent properties that have been carefully landscaped for a half-century or more.

“The growth there has created a situation, in terms of incompatible infill,” Stogner says. “We’ve met with homeowners the last six months to determine the best way to balance infill with existing development, and come up with standards for our inspectors.”

Anticipating an onslaught of demolition permits seeking grandfather status for some proposed residential infill projects, the county put in place a moratorium until the new standards go into effect.

Few governments have responded so swiftly to this growing, nationwide problem, leaders say. But fast and furious is Jones’ style – in fact both he and Stogner speak at a rapid clip – and that’s been good for business. “Our business portfolio is up to $1 billion this year,” Jones says. “Four and a half years ago, business was passing us by. Now, we’re out, taking trade missions to Brazil and Mexico.” The county’s improved infrastructure and low water rates recently lured Pepsi from Atlanta, bringing 100 jobs, and similar announcements have been rolling out on a regular basis.

“We have a lot of different economies inside one mega-economy,” says Mullins, the economic development director. “And because of our international dynamic, we’ll be accelerating even more in terms of global investment in the county. We’ve set a goal of increasing our commercial tax base by 2 percent each year.”

Health Care Cluster

Growth at the internationally known CDC and Emory further primes DeKalb’s diverse economy, creating a cluster structure that attracts peripheral industries. “The health care industry attracts high-paying, clean jobs,” notes DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce President Leonardo McClarty. “In addition to growth in research and other fields, there’s a big demand for positions such as nurses, which creates a lot of opportunities.”

It also creates a challenge: there are 6,000 jobs in the Clifton Road corridor, where both Emory and the CDC are expanding. As traffic swarms around the corridor, Jones notes that “we can’t wait for MARTA” to improve county connectivity for motorists and pedestrians. “We’re trying to do something about Briarcliff,” he says, referencing the main traffic artery at one end of Clifton. “When they evacuated the CDC [on 9/11], it caused total gridlock,” Stogner adds.

Regarding a potential Beltline route to Emory, Jones says, “Any time I hear a transportation initiative, ‘I’m for it. The problem is the Not In My Backyard syndrome. That’s the challenge of building new rails.”

Meanwhile, the county has prioritized extending MARTA to Stonecrest, Jones says. “Getting the money is the problem. We’re the largest county government in the state, with less money than Gwinnett, Cobb, or GRTA. We hope other counties will eventually pay their fair share. Until then, if we want to keep lower rates, we have to use bonds to fund infrastructure improvements.” (Voters will decide this month whether to pass a new $230 million bond for transportation, parks, libraries and greenspace.)

“It will take leadership at the state level [to solve MARTA’s problems],” Stogner predicts. But there are other ways to improve DeKalb transportation, such as high-density, mixed-use development and hiking/biking trails. “We invest most of our HOST money in greenspace and transportation,” Jones says. “It’s all tied in, as we build turn lanes and trails to our employment centers.”

Mixed-use projects such as Perimeter Center are improvements in themselves, “in terms of having people living there, not driving in and out,” McClarty says.

“We were recently listed as one of the 19 most nature-friendly places in the country (Nature-Friendly Communities: Habitat Protection and Land Use Planning, by Chris Duerksen and Cara Snyder, Island Press, 2005), which I think says a lot,” says Jones, who credits his appreciation of the environment to his childhood on the family farm in Laurinburg, N.C.

The county has proven adept at matching federal and state dollars at a ratio of 20 to 80 percent, through programs such as the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative.

“We have several LCI projects, and we’ve created Tax Allocation Districts near our Interstate exits to create mixed-use, high-density development [see story, page. 53],” Jones says. “We also have overlay districts, on Wesley Chapel Road between the empty Wal-Mart and K-Mart, where we’ll encourage mixed-use development; on Candler Road, which is undergoing streetscaping; and on Gresham Road, off Interstate 20, which is getting a whole new retail/residential development, not far from East Lake. Once redevelopment sparks interest, it spreads like wildfire.”

Quality Of Life

It’s with these new developments in mind that Jones’ administration is shifting in focus from economic growth to quality of life. “We have about 700,000 people today,” he says. “We’ll probably build out at 1.2 million over the next 20 years. The most undeveloped acreage is in Southeast DeKalb, near Stonecrest, which is why we’ve invested in … Arabia Mountain. We may not treasure Arabia Mountain now, but 25 or 30 years from now, we’ll be glad we preserved it.”

DeKalb is learning from its mistakes: The acquisition will prevent the area from becoming as commercialized as Stone Mountain, or as overdeveloped as Chamblee, while giving Lithonia – with massive growth potential centered around its proximity to Interstate 20, Stonecrest Mall, and some of the most affluent black neighborhoods in the country – one of Metro Atlanta’s classiest amenities.

“Growth is headed there anyway,” Stogner says. “The $230 million [referendum] would continue our momentum, which has acquired 2,200 acres of greenspace all over the county. If we didn’t buy it four years ago, there’d be 2,000 houses planned where Arabia Mountain is.”

The county’s investment in biking and hiking trails has also paid off. “Developers will tell you, the days of a house on a golf course are over,” Stogner says. “Now [homeowners] want green areas and bike paths, even more than swimming pools.” The network-oriented emphasis on quality of life is what unites the county, in all its radically different manifestations. DeKalb has escaped the “secession fever” that is evident in North Fulton County.

“Decatur may be different from Stonecrest, and Perimeter may be different from Panola Road,” Jones says. “But because 85 percent of the county is served by DeKalb, every community is getting a boost – we’re still one DeKalb.”

Part of that quality control requires affordable housing. Land values make it difficult to create high-density projects near appropriate areas – such as MARTA stations – without out-pricing the county’s vital workforce. “We refer to them as our ‘Workforce Heroes,'” says Commission Chairman Burrell Ellis. “Our schoolteachers, our caretakers and social service workers, our police and firemen – those who are willing to pay the ultimate price – must be able to afford to live where they’re needed.”

“You don’t want to force all your people out. Then, you end up with only the very rich and the very poor,” Jones says. “We have to encourage high density where we can deal with it: from high rises near transportation nodes and MARTA parking lots, to mid-rises in downtown Decatur,” Stogner adds. “All that creates a village concept, and critical mass.”

It could be that loyalty to quality of life that has united so many across a broad spectrum, creating a sort of magic touch that is difficult to define about DeKalb, but which everyone acknowledges somehow relates to its diversity.

“What’s been so amazing, and I can’t say why, is that people really get along with one another, and respect each other’s differences here,” Mullins says. “You can look in all the communities, from Clarkston to Scottdale to Buford Highway – there are Asians next to Hispanic businesses, and everyone is prospering. It’s a wonderful garden of the world.”

Categories: Metro Atlanta