Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A year ago this week, Jason Lary was sworn in as mayor of his brainchild, the brand new city of Stonecrest outside of Atlanta. Now Stonecrest is a frontrunner to land the new Amazon headquarters. How’d he do it?
Earlier this month, Brentin Mock reported on the burgeoning cityhood movements outside of Atlanta. Now he talks with the mayor of the newest city on Atlanta’s outskirts, Stonecrest.
You may have heard about the Amazon HQ2 proposal from Georgia offering municipal naming rights to the corporate behemoth—as in, the company could have its own city called Amazon, Georgia. That offer came from the city of Stonecrest, which sits about 20 miles east of the city of Atlanta. Stonecrest has only, itself, been a city since 2017. Residents of the formerly unincorporated area of southeast DeKalb County voted in November 2016 to officially incorporate into a city. It is one of the more recent municipal experiments to hatch across the county, and metro Atlanta as a whole, since the turn of the century.
Stonecrest elected its first mayor, Jason Lary, on March 21, 2017. He was sworn in six days later making Tuesday his one-year anniversary. Lary is also the person who came up with the Stonecrest city concept and who planned it for four years before taking it to the state legislature for a vote in 2016. The city’s formation is not without haters, though. Sam Rosen wrote about the “controversial cityhood movement” happening around Atlanta for The Atlantic last year, explaining that the original impetus for unincorporated suburbs to municipalize may have been driven at least in part by racism.
Many of the neighborhoods that became cities, starting in the 2000s, were predominantly white and upper-income enclaves that wanted more control of how their tax dollars were used by DeKalb County. Prior to becoming cities, the unincorporated areas depended on the county to deliver services such as garbage collection, policing, sewage maintenance and building inspection. As cities, these places can contract with private entities to operate these services in a more controlled and localized environment.
Stonecrest was the first majority-black city to form from this cityhood movement in DeKalb County, and so far it is the only city to form in the county’s southern parts, where the bulk of the African-American population lives. There is currently another proposal to municipalize the remainder of South DeKalb into a city called Greenhaven, but it is meeting massive resistance.
It’s similar to the resistance that met Lary when he spearheaded the Stonecrest city effort. (“You cannot be a cotton ball for the kind of work I’m doing,” Lary told Rosen for The Atlantic. “It’s some Jimmy Hoffa-level work.”) For those who oppose cityhood in DeKalb County, the fears are, mostly, that residential property values will collapse and that taxes will rise, especially if the city has a majority non-white population. The research in general, does not support that anxiety, but Stonecrest, which has an almost completely black population, has at least a year’s worth of data from its own existence to test those claims.
Citylab spoke with Stonecrest Mayor Lary to get a read-out of the city’s vital signs in its first year. And also, of course, we talked Amazon—is Lary really going to hand the keys to the city over to Bezos when he just got the keys himself? Read his responses in our interview below (edited for length and clarity).
Explain why it was necessary for Stonecrest to become a city.
As a 25-year resident [of southeast DeKalb County] I did not see the focus on economic development for our area. Everything was going to central and north DeKalb: State Farm, Mercedes Benz—just name it. We couldn't get any attention, not from the county, not from the development authority, nothing. We had to create a brand, and create our own city, and our own economic development engines to have a better shot at being successful. So that's what we did. We became a city. I ran for mayor. I won, and I created an economic development department, and we stay busy all day long just focusing on the Stonecrest brand, recruiting and retaining businesses. We were not getting that from a county that serves several hundred thousand people. So now we have 53,000 people focusing on our own business.
What have you learned in your first year as a city?
What I learned is that politics is a bloodsport (laughs). There is a millennium-sized difference between taking over an existing city versus building a new city. In building a new city, it's a double-time effort—not full-time, double-time, OK? You cannot be a part-time mayor.
You all are now developing a 200-acre sports and entertainment complex called Atlanta Sports City—how did municipalization impact that project?
One of the reasons [the developers] brought it over here was because of the formation of the city of Stonecrest. They wanted to be able to have the flexibility to operate in an environment that was not as constraining as the county’s. As a local city, we can issue the correct ordinances that we need to be more conducive for business. I think we had the defining impact on them coming to southeast DeKalb.
Some news outlets reported that your proposal to host Amazon’s new headquarters included an offer to rename the city after the company. Is that really what you’re offering?
It is not to rename the city at all. What we offered to do was to take part of the city that we have in our industrial park area, that has 345 acres—to carve that off, and name it Amazon, Georgia. Also, they could have their own shipping distribution highway called 1000 Jeff Bezos Parkway. How neat would that be?
We'll have to create that through the legislature, and since I'm the architect of this city, I know how to do that. You de-annex 345 acres, then you get the [state] senators and the House of Representatives to support it. And with a $5 billion investment at stake, it has a good chance of happening. So it wasn't renaming Stonecrest, it was creating another city inside of an existing city.
What do you think of the criticism that cities shouldn’t be offering to give away so much land and tax breaks to Amazon?
I think that's the dumbest thing on the planet (laughs). Somebody is going to bring a $5 billion investment to your town with 50,000 jobs—and not only 50,000 jobs, but also the economic residual factor of other jobs being created and the commerce that comes along with it—and people are complaining? You can bring it to Stonecrest all day long (laughs). I'll take every job. I'll take every inch of traffic. I'll take it all.
What do you think of the proposal to turn the rest of the unincorporated land in South DeKalb County into a city called Greenhaven?
I think everybody should have the right to vote about that. People have philosophies about how they feel about the population or the size [of the proposed city] and that's all well and fine. Come to the ballot and make that difference.
Why do you think the Greenhaven proposal is meeting so much resistance?
I can think of one cool reason: Stonecrest’s [population] is 53,000, Brookhaven’s is 48,000, Dunwoody’s is 47,000—you know how large Greenhaven is?
Bingo. It would be the last remaining city that would be able to form throughout the entire county. And that means that the other cities couldn't annex [anymore unincorporated land]. They couldn't do anything actually. That's why they're meeting resistance.
Those who are against forming a city in South DeKalb are also worried that their property values would drop if that happened. Has that been the experience in Stonecrest?
Absolutely not (laughs). Matter of fact, our property values are going up! I live in it. I know. I get the tax bill. I don't know why people think that. I'll tell you about another bit of misinformation: They’ll say, “Well my taxes are going to double—I’ll have to pay a city tax and a county tax.”
Nope, not the case at all. Whatever service that you have in unincorporated DeKalb County, now is the service of the city. What made it even better for Stonecrest is that our property tax was such a small piece of the overall revenue of the city, we don't even have a millage rate. It's zero. So people's taxes didn't go up, and they have a better brand, and their property value increased. So we're winning across the board here.
There’s also criticism though that if the original cities formed for racially exclusive reasons, for white residents, that the answer is not to form a black city—that you can’t fight cityhood with cityhood, because it leaves the racism underlying the racial segregation in the region undisturbed. What do you think of that?
Racism? I don't feel that way. Let's make it short. I don't care what white folks do. I'm almost 60 years old. I got to worry about how much time I got left on this planet to get us together (laughs). We are a strong 95 percent African-American city that has formed on its own with its own level of commerce and its own opportunity to win.
Because the white folks broke off [to start their own cities]—it doesn't matter to me. They can do what they do, because I'm not going to pick up my house and go move over there. I've got to make a stand right here in Stonecrest and make this work for us.
And I don't understand the philosophy behind that particular piece of it because soon there's not going to be any more unincorporated DeKalb, whether Greenhaven takes it all up, or whether some other city comes along, or whether all these other cities decide to annex [the unincorporated land] to make them bigger.
And let me give you this tidbit: if it weren't for the white folks, we wouldn't be a city now anyway, because it took their majority vote in the House and Senate to make it so. All I told the white senators and the House of Representatives was this: I don't need your free tokens; I don't need your handouts; I don't need any of that nonsense. What I need for you to do is to put us on the ballot so we can make our own decision and then I can live with the results of it from there.