“It used to be I could name just about everybody from the river to Austell,” said Ragan, whose store sits at 477 Veterans Memorial Highway, just east of the intersection with Hicks Road. “There’s only about three family-owned businesses still left.”
Ragan, now 64, said he started working in his father’s store when he was 12. He said changes in southwest Cobb started happening around the time of the 1996 Olympics, when poor residents were forced out of Atlanta. He said many came to south Cobb, where they were able to buy homes with government-backed loans. But many didn’t stay, instead leaving blight behind.
“You can take people and put them in a house with no money down, and they’re going to leave there,” Ragan said.
Elsewhere in south Cobb, other signs indicate it lags behind the rest of the county. While other parts of the county get new roundabout intersections, cars along Six Flags Drive still come to four-way stops, in some cases at signs covered in graffiti.
Mableton and Six Flags Drive, along with the area along Riverview Road, are the county’s primary areas of concern in southwest Cobb. Recent studies on the three areas are being combined into the South Cobb Implementation Strategy, which is being carried out through a work program between Cobb County and the recently revived South Cobb Redevelopment Authority.
The seven-member redevelopment authority meets monthly and plans a meeting with the Board of Commissioners and Cobb School board to consider issues like tax allocation districts. Its members include Darhyl Watkins, Deloitte consultant; Ford Thigpen, Westside Bank president; Melinda Ashcraft, Six Flags over Georgia general manager; and Robin Meyer, chairwoman of the Mableton Improvement Coalition, who were appointed by the Board of Commissioners. Those appointed by the Cobb Legislative Delegation were Damon Duncan, owner of ClesiaVentures; Ed Richardson, president of Richardson Management Group LLC; and Adrienne Lance Lucas, chief operating officer of ICG Real Estate Advisors LLC.
Southwest Cobb’s future has been the focus of the Tuesday’s Democratic Primary for the District 4 position on the Cobb County Board of Commissioners.
Incumbent Commissioner Woody Thompson, who served two terms as a Republican between 1997 and 2005 before being elected as a Democrat in 2008, said the area was first built up in the 1950s and 1960s. When a “natural overflow” of residents began coming into east Cobb from Atlanta and Sandy Springs, some from south Cobb followed.
A high foreclosure rate and other factors are contributing to dragging home values down in the area, said Thompson, a Mableton resident. Other houses, owned by older people, have yards that aren’t kept up. But many of the homes near Thompson are brick, which can be appealing to younger couples in the future.
“The thing about these small brick houses is they are built to last,” he said.
Educator Michael Rhett, one of Thompson’s five opponents in Tuesday’s primary, said south Cobb suffered because of a lack of access to major roads, retail development and housing developments aimed at multiple income groups.
“South Cobb held its own when I first got here,” said Rhett, who came to the county in 1992. “As the other parts of the county built up, people moved to other parts of Cobb.”
Lisa Cupid said she had experiences when she first moved to southwest Cobb 10 years ago that she wouldn’t have had in other parts of the county. She said she was shocked to see people walking in the street to a bus stop because there were no sidewalks. The subdivision she moved into with her husband, Craig, an intellectual property attorney who like her is a Georgia Tech engineering graduate, promised a new trail and community spaces.
Not only were those not built, but Cupid was dismayed to one day find bulldozers prepping land for town homes where she thought the trails would go. The new development destroyed the view from the home, which she said was a primary reason she bought it.
“To see that just taken away without being consulted, without seeing the developer follow through on his plans, it motivated us to get involved,” she said. “Somebody in the county should have looked at the plans and followed through. That’s when we decided to get involved.”
Others agree that the county doesn’t treat all people equally. Ragan said Cobb Code Enforcement told him not to store tires outside, and repeated the same message to a store across the street. He complies, but his neighbor doesn’t, he said, and there’s no penalty.
“Code enforcement is sort of like your mama, telling you your daddy’s going to spank you, and then he doesn’t do nothing,” he said.
Even when Connie Taylor, a grants compliance director with the city of Atlanta, moved to the area in 1999, she said there was nothing along the East-West Connector near Powder Springs. But soon development came, but much of that died when the economy tanked, she said.
“We have a lot of vacant buildings,” Taylor said. “We have to figure out a way to have businesses come into the district, and provide them with incentives to help them remain in the district.”
Thompson said the county is already starting that. Sidewalk improvements were recently made along Six Flags Drive and elsewhere, including the county’s first HAWK pedestrian crossing signal. Commissioners recently submitted a request to the state Department of Community Affairs to create an opportunity zone, which would give companies in blighted areas a $3,500 tax credit for each employee, and Thompson and Chairman Tim Lee recently met with state officials.
The county is also looking at creating tax allocation districts for the Six Flags area and Mableton, according to the redevelopment authority work program. In addition, the county would like to secure land near the Mableton Post Office from the General Services Administration to create a “town green” near land currently owned by former Gov. Roy Barnes, which could be developed into a “town center,” with residential and commercial space.
Starting next year, the county and South Cobb Redevelopment Authority plan to begin a property acquisition process along Six Flags Drive, where it wants to buy three apartment complexes with high vacancy rates to be redeveloped. According to a Six Flags study released by the county this year, another town center development is being considered for the area along Six Flags Drive between Factory Shoals Road and Six Flags Parkway.
In the River Line area, near River View Road, the county seeks to add 100 acres to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Thompson said a $300 million residential and commercial development is also planned there.
The multi-use developments, or “livable centers,” are championed because, with people living and shopping, and possibly working, in the same place, traffic is anticipated to be cut down.
Rhett said he would like to see things taken even further, with community improvement districts, like Cumberland and Town Center, being formed in south Cobb. In CIDs, businesses tax themselves and use the revenue to fund improvements in the district, while seeking grants from outside governments.
While southwest Cobb has a reputation has being the most crime-ridden area in the county, recent statistics show that could be changing. According to Cobb Police reports, Precinct 2 in southwest Cobb had 315 incidents reported in June. That was second most of the county’s five precincts behind Precinct 3, around the Cumberland area, which reported 321 incidents.
Compare that to June 2011, when Precinct 2 reported 370 incidents and Precinct 3 reported 296.
A similar trend is taking place so far in July, where 243 incidents were reported in Precinct 2 through Friday and 255 in Precinct 3. In July 2011, Precinct 2 had 314 incidents and Precinct 3 had 273 incidents reported.
Thompson said both areas are susceptible to crime because they are located close to interstate highways.
“Six Flags Drive has an abundance of police officers because they are needed,” he said. “The ne’er do wells break into a home and get on an expressway and are gone. It’s the same thing on 285.”
Precinct 5, in west Cobb, by comparison had 86 incidents reported in June 2011 and 64 reported in June 2012, the lowest number in the county.
In order to turn southwest Cobb around, the area needs to attract a mixture of business and residential, said real estate broker Donna Rowe, a member of the Development Authority of Cobb County. She sees the area along Veterans Memorial Highway as a place that was allowed to deteriorate, which Canton Road in northeast Cobb is now in danger of doing.
“Homes make a place livable,” Rowe said. “If people own a home, they have equity in the community. If people own a business, they have an interest in making it better.”
With people moving to south Cobb from different parts of the world, Ragan said business owners there should learn more than one language. Stepside Tires’ website is available in English and Spanish.
Some are already attracted to the area. Ten years ago, Pamela Simmons bought the Book House, located at 480 Veterans Memorial Highway. She decided to move to Mableton and take over the store that had been in business since 1979. The mother of three said she doesn’t regret coming to the community.
“It’s being revitalized,” she said. “It’s struggled, and I hate to see people go out of business. I moved here because I realized you can raise a family in Mableton for half of what you can in Marietta or Smyrna, and it’s close to everywhere you want to be.”