Decatur Named One of Georgia’s “Renaissance Cities”


Georgia Trend magazine recently asked the Georgia Municipal Association to help them identify some of Georgia’s “most successful downtown revitalizations”.

From the initial list provided, Georgia Trend chose to highlight eight downtown areas in their February issue: Blue Ridge, Columbus, Dahlonega, Decatur, Hinesville, Roswell, Savannah and Statesboro.

Here’s a snippet of the Decatur write up from the article

The city of Decatur could give a clinic on downtown revitalization. Since the early 1980s, the city’s leaders, business owners and citizens have worked diligently to create Decatur’s small-town atmosphere with a big-city buzz. “We did a town center plan around 1982,” says Bill Floyd a longtime mayor and city commissioner. “That’s when the vision of this community started. If you go back and look at that plan, you’ll see that what’s happened in Decatur is basically what’s in the plan.”

16 thoughts on “Decatur Named One of Georgia’s “Renaissance Cities””

  1. What separates Decatur from those cities (the much-larger Savannah excluded) is the ease of access to a large employment center, in this case Atlanta. Whether it be to downtown via the MARTA train or a short drive to Emory or CDC, Decatur is well-situated geographically without being part of Atlanta’s governance problems. Couple that advantage with a strong plan and the political will to stick to it and even enhance it and you get Decatur.

    What I find interesting in the article is what isn’t mentioned: the fact that, last I checked, Decatur has the highest property taxes of any city in the state, a state that otherwise has one of the lower tax burdens in the country and a correspondingly low quality of life. You get what you pay for.

    1. I disagree – you don’t always get what you pay for when it comes to taxation.

      I would argue that the reason Decatur has been successful is:
      1) A goverance structure that encourages competent management, minimizes graft and measures progress against an excellent long term plan.
      2) Steady political leadership from individuals who are focused on the community’s success and aligned on a long term vision for the city (not focused on using Decatur as a launching pad to higher office or to pad their own pockets).
      3) Engaged and proactive business community and electorate.
      4) Geography (to your point): A good school system surrounded by poor school systems and a large employment center. This draws in high income families, who then further strengthen the business community, the schools and electoral engagement.

      While I agree that high taxes and high property values facilitate this process by reducing the number of tradeoffs required, I believe this just allows the city to achieve their objectives faster. They could still be achieved at a slower pace with the items above.

      Alternately, if you have high taxes without good leadership… you get a destructive cycle of graft and community decline.

      1. I don’t have the time right now to survey the literature, but I suspect you could find, at least on the municipal level, a highly significant correlation between governing success and having the means to ensure adequate resources. I consider my Decatur tax payments a good investment.

        1. Correlation yes, but I don’t think it is direct cause and effect. If anything, the high taxes are the effect of its citizens willing to pay a premium to live here. In turn, the high taxes mean more resources to lead to more improvements faster. A little bit of chicken and egg I guess, but I don’t think if, for ex., Dekalb Co. dramatically raised its taxes, it would see any material improvement (in fact, I think the opposite would happen). There has to some meaningful benefit first in order to justify the taxes.

          I think CoD’s relative affluence may be the largest factor to its success (and proximity to Atlanta and other job centers with high-paying jobs (in most cases, careers)) plays a part in that). People have money to support local businesses and money to donate to the many, many local causes or groups, which in turn give back to the community. The level of involement of CoD’s residents may be the second largest factor, both with government and with local groups, charities, etc.. No one sits back and quietly watches things go to hell like with Dekalb School Board. Of course, without the relatively great school system, this conversation would be moot.

          1. There was a time when DeKalb County had a better reputation for schools than City of Decatur. Oak Grove, Fernbank, the Dunwoody elementaries were a much bigger draw than CSD elementary schools. Many residents of big renovations in the Great Lakes and Winnona Park sent their kids to Paideia, The Friends School, The Children’s School, St. Thomas More, Westminster, Woodward, Atlanta Girl’s School. Glennwood Elementary was considered iffy. It took a whole generation of Decatur booster parents to restore neighborhood commitment to their local schools, one by one. I’m not sure Winnona Park ever lost local support but even Clairemont had to work hard to become the neighborhood school again. Then Westchester, then Glennwood, then Oakhurst, then the reconfiguration… Meanwhile, DeKalb County School System managed to take its considerable lead and greater wealth in places like Druid Hills, Dunwoody, Oak Grove and totally blow it.

            So it’s definitely more than just the wealth in the community that determines the quality of the school system. It’s also whether the residents are willing to demand good local schools and put their money where their mouth is and send their children to them. A competent School Board and administration can capitalize on that demand and commitment. DeKalb County seems to see it as a challenge to overcome in its race to the bottom.

            1. Not to discount our schools’ remarkable improvements at all, but I think there are other factors beyond just performance making our schools attractive. In most places, one’s relationship with the school(s) is typically one of provider/consumer whereby I’d argue Decatur offers the greater promise of experience and lifestyle.

              In short, by buying into Decatur, families aren’t just buying access to a good education. They’re also buying things like walkability, human-scaled operations, a real downtown, and the sense of community that develops around neighborhood schools. All those extras add up to an appealing daily experience that transcends the usual concerns like test scores, graduation rates, reputation, etc. Anyone who makes their livelihood from real estate knows that we’re increasingly entering an era where lifestyle and quality of life make the difference in purchase decisions.

              1. Agree. It’s easy to oversimplify why CSD schools or the City of Decatur are popular right now. A multitude of factors lead up to their tipping points. After things have tipped, it’s easy to think you understand why they did so. But oversimplistic explanations pose the risk of being blind to the next, perhaps negative, tipping point.

    2. I don’t think the relationship between taxes and quality is just so. Actually, I think the tax rates here are a consequence, not a driver, of something else that happens to be the key reason for our success. That key is our scale.

      A municipality the size of DeKalb County or City of Atlanta is essentially ungovernable by the people. Once you get beyond a certain number of residents, each resident has so little input that the government becomes detached from the will of the people. This is why DeKalb County can be so wildly corrupt and obviously mismanaged but nothing can be done about it.

      In Decatur we have more direct interaction and input into our government, and it is accountable to us. In order to maintain this control we must forego the impulse to “scale up” and reduce the per capita cost of government services, so our taxes are higher. THIS is what our high taxes pay for – manageable scale.

      Other factors mentioned above make it work here better than similarly scaled communities – affluent, educated residents thanks to our proximity to ATL and Emory/CDC, a built environment that encourages community interaction, quality schools, etc. At some point in the past it became a virtuous cycle as more affluent/educated people became drawn to live here.

      1. You nailed it TeeRuss. As a member of a family that has been here since 1936 it has always been obvious, especially the success of the schools.

  2. “you don’t always get what you pay for when it comes to taxation.”

    Of course I know that’s true, and my statement was a generalization, but I do think it’s worth noting that (arguably) the best city in a mostly-non-progressive state is the one with the highest property tax rate.

  3. My opinion is that Georgia Trends promotes big government in small Georgia towns. This is why they love Decatur. For GA T, we got it all, wealthy homeowners, decreasing minorities, liberal politics, security, high taxes, compliant residents ( who the hell in Georgia would put up with blue bag garbage requirements and storm water taxes!) and we’re close to the the Big ATL and the General Assembly. The elites in most Georgia municipalities love these ideas, and everything else out of Decatur but ask the good ol’ GA boys and girls in small towns around the state and you will find a very different opinion. Of course, this is just my opinion, one guy living on a dirt road in Decatur. I have no way of knowing what’s going on in south Hahirah. Are they still streakin’ thair?
    (Ray Stevens reference for you youngins).

    1. So I guess you don’t agree that Decatur is a poster child for downtown revitalization, not just in Georgia, but nationally?

    2. Chris – This is pure conjecture, ignores facts, and is offensive. To pick on just one piece of your “argument”: I don’t consider myself “compliant” for being a big supporter of our waste management system here. We, as citizens, pay more to have our trash taken to the landfill, which costs the city money, and are incentiveized to recycle. The city can actually recoup money by selling our recyclable goods on the market. This makes more economic sense than the way it is done in most other places. This is just good governance. The “good ol boy” locations in Georgia don’t allow themselves to think up common-sense solutions such as this because they are shaking from their into anti-government fits, thus they find themselves isolated from the 21st century, and I might add, with deteriorating downtown cores.

  4. “Not to discount our schools’ remarkable improvements at all, but I think there are other factors beyond just performance making our schools attractive. ”

    100% agree. After all, there are statistically better schools in N. Fulton and other places.

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