Breaking The DeKalb Way: The Playing Field

Dekalb trafficFind part one of the series here.

The streams feeding the lakes of the Mainstreet Community subdivision have a silting problem. “We’ve been trying to get DeKalb County out here to fix this for five years,” said Nadine Rivers-Johnson, the community manager for the middle-income family subdivision off of South Hairston. “When we try to talk to people at Watershed, it’s always someone else’s problem.”

Rivers-Johnson carefully avoids taking a position on the District 4 election itself. The community management has to be neutral, she said. Also, she serves as Sharon Barnes-Sutton’s appointee on boards. Still, “I am happy that there is some competition,” she said. “It’s important to me. … We expect responses from our elected officials. Responsiveness, responsiveness, responsiveness.”

I can guess at what she means. Sharon Barnes-Sutton has grown notorious over the years for how rarely she returns calls or emails.

“When I meet and talk to other people, they say that they can’t get anyone from Sharon Barnes-Sutton’s office to call them back,” said Alesia Brooks, a consultant in Stone Mountain who gravitated to Bradshaw’s campaign after voting for Barnes-Sutton twice. “I’ve known her for years. She was a member of an investment club I started 10 years ago. Sharon, in my opinion, has not served this community well at all. She doesn’t have a relationship with the constituents in her district.”

The fourth district covers the middle fifth of the county, a four-mile wide patch starting in North Decatur and Avondale, then east to the border through Clarkston, Scottdale, the Memorial Drive corridor, Pine Lake and Stone Mountain. The Memorial Drive and Hairston Road areas have performed a slow-motion fall off a cliff economically. Poverty hovers between 20 and 40 percent. The crime rate in the arc between Ponce de Leon Avenue and Memorial Drive outpaces the rest of South DeKalb.

“We’ve been neglected,” said Jan Dunaway, a former president of Pride Rings In Stone Mountain, a civic group for the Memorial Drive corridor. “We need a responsive person. Memorial Drive should be a main focus, and it’s just neglected.”

Dunaway served on the PRISM board with Bradshaw a few years back, she said. “He’s been around for a long time. He’s watched a lot of change. We’ve all seen the change that this area has suffered.”

The economic situations in the southern commission districts are starkly different from those of the north. The real estate recovery largely passed by south DeKalb. A three-bedroom house on a quarter acre north of Ponce might sell for $200,000 or more. South of Memorial Drive, the same house would only sell in a foreclosure at a third of that, even today. While the perimeter around Dunwoody boasts construction cranes and shopping traffic tangles, south DeKalb is largely a ghost town of half-empty strip malls, nail salons and fly-by-night tax shops.

There’s weak social connection between both halves of the county, since there’s little economic reason for anyone living near Brookhaven to travel to Lithonia and bad transportation options for anyone in Ellenwood trying to get to Dunwoody.

Like many wonky spirits, Bradshaw’s been living in a state of Menkenian dissatisfaction for years.

Bradshaw’s focus is on corruption, business development and sound government management. DeKalb has infrastructure and access to industry that much of Georgia would cut off limbs to get. “There’s nothing wrong with DeKalb County that cannot be fixed by what is right with DeKalb County,” he told supporters at his first fundraiser last year.

But he acknowledges that renewal has to start with changes to DeKalb’s institutional culture, “not a task for the faint of heart,” he said. “Cultural change is a challenging process which requires leadership from the top and the courage to see it through. Absent that, institutional resistance to any change process often carries the day.”

He wants to put together a sales team to directly recruit companies to DeKalb, matching fallow property to business needs. But that won’t work while the county still looks like a pay-to-play environment, he said.

“We first have to clean the county up. Make the county an easy place to do business. Permitting, procurement, all those things have to be tightened up,” he told a forum last week. “The second big attractor to business is safety. Who wants to put a business somewhere where their business, their property, their employees aren’t going to be safe. We have a burgeoning crisis in our public safety departments in turnover and retention.”

I would normally list all of the policy pronouncements and goals Barnes-Sutton has articulated for her third term as well, in deference to fairness. But she hasn’t returned my phone call.

Bradshaw took a shot at Barnes-Sutton in 2012. Barnes-Sutton raised more than five times as much money and used it to carpet bomb the district in direct mail. In a three-way primary, Barnes-Sutton won 73 percent of the vote to Bradshaw’s 22. And, frankly, that scares the hell of out some people.

Tomorrow: DeKalb County, in black and white.


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