In recent weeks I’ve been conducting interviews with Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, who has held office since 1985, and has presided over a fundamental transformation of the city into one of the most desirable and dynamic Atlanta suburbs. What follows is the last chapter of my book A Brief History of Smyrna Georgia (History Press, 2013), which deals with the period 1980 to 2013. It is intended as an introduction to the illustrated excerpts from the interviews that will be following in regular installments beginning in December 2017. One of the advantages of publishing this excerpt from my book here is that the blog format allows me to post more visual material than appeared in my book on Smyrna.
Smyrna Reinvented, 1980-2013
Conceived by its founders as a potential commuter suburb, Smyrna in the century that followed its 1872 incorporation only partially fulfilled that ambitious vision. Progress had been made intermittently, as we have seen, but a litany of obstacles slowed or blocked the suburbanizing process. In the 1980 to 2000 period, however, the Jonquil City finally achieved the goal of its founders and emerged as one of Metropolitan Atlanta’s premier suburbs.
This transformation, coincided with the administrations of two particularly forceful Mayors—Arthur Bacon (who served from 1976-77 and again from 1982 to 1985) and his son, Max, who succeeded to the mayoralty when Arthur succumbed to lung cancer in 1985.
Max Bacon has held the office of mayor continuously for the past 28 years, and is thus not only the longest serving mayor in Smyrna’s history, but also possibly the longest serving head of a municipality in the southeastern United States. “Mad Max” as his detractors sometimes referred to this energetic young mayor in the early years, presided over and largely orchestrated a fundamental transformation of Smyrna that has drawn national attention and plaudits.
The first of the Bacon mayors, Arthur, was a World War II hero and a local realtor. He was born in the town of Stevens in northeastern Georgia in 1917. His father, Robert H. Bacon, having been hired as a car inspector by the NC&StL Railroad, moved his family to Smyrna when Arthur was a small child, settling on Roswell Street near the Smyrna Depot in a neighborhood where many railroad employees resided.
Arthur’s was a typical depression-era childhood. He recollected selling jonquils to tourists who passed through the town in the 1920s on their way to Florida. He was also a talented athlete.
Arthur Bacon, an accomplished athlete, was voted “Mr. Marietta” by the 1939 Marietta High School graduating class.
Arthur attended Marietta High School, where he won an athletic scholarship to Oglethorpe University, but with the outbreak of World War II he interrupted his studies to join the military. He came home from the war as a decorated war hero, having participated in many of its key engagements, including the Battle of the Bulge. Remaining in the reserves for some years, Arthur Bacon also saw service in the Korean Conflict, finally retiring from the military in 1958 at age 41 with the rank of captain.
Bacon subsequently worked as a rural mail carrier. For a time he operated a dry cleaning business with his brother and eventually entered a real estate business, Moore & Bacon Realty. In 1946 he married Dorothy Moseley of Sumter, South Carolina, a former army nurse, and the newly married couple built a house on Bank Street, where Arthur lived for the balance of his life, and where his widow still resides.
Arthur Bacon served as an elected member of the Cobb County Zoning Board in the early 1970s. He then sought election to the Smyrna City Council, was defeated on his first try, but eventually secured a seat which he held from 1970 to 1975. In 1976 Bacon succeeded John Porterfield as mayor, but after serving a single term relinquished the office for health reasons, and sat out the four years of Frank Johnson’s mayoralty.
In 1981, having regained his health, Arthur Bacon again sought the mayoralty and was easily reelected, serving an additional two terms in the office (1982-85), but dying on October 26, 1985, at age 68, in the final weeks of his third term.
Bacon’s main accomplishments during his second stint as mayor were significant. They included placing Smyrna’s Fire and Police Departments on a more professional basis; balancing the city’s budget; selling revenue bonds that allowed the city to modernize its outmoded water and sewer lines and to upgrade its public safety and public works departments; expanding the city’s boundaries and tax base through judicious annexations; overseeing the construction of Village Parkway, which fostered quality development in the northeast section of Smyrna; and establishing a public golf course on Windy Hill Road, formerly part of the Dobbins Air Base, on land that the federal government ceded to the municipality.
Perhaps the most important of Arthur Bacon’s many accomplishments was his success in instilling more of a team spirit in Smyrna’s contentious city council. This was no easy task. As late as 1977 journalist Bill Kinney referred to Smyrna as “long Cobb County’s hottest political battlefield.” Arthur Bacon’s ability to mold the formerly combative city council into a working team was cited by just about all of his colleagues in the aftermath of his death. He encouraged council members to involve themselves in as many projects as the city was involved in. This spirit of common endeavor would continue to be a hallmark of Smyrna’s government in the post 1985 period under his son, Max.
Max Bacon, who succeeded his father as mayor by vote of the City Council in November 1985, was born in 1948, the second child and oldest son of Arthur and Dot Bacon. He attended Smyrna Elementary School and after graduating from Campbell High School in 1966, went on to Dekalb College and Chattahoochee Technical College, followed by service from 1966 to 1970 in the Georgia Air National Guard.
Max Bacon was first elected a member of the Smyrna City Council in 1979, during Frank Johnson’s mayoralty, two years before his father’s election as mayor for the second time. He represented Ward 2, which included the Campbell Road area and other older sections of town, neighborhoods which the new councilman described as “neglected.” In his six years as a member he was arguably the most proactive councilman, speaking out forcefully on a broad range of city as well as county issues.
Smyrna’s mayoralty is a part-time job, offering relatively meager compensation. On that account the city’s mayors have been obliged to have independent sources of income. Arthur Bacon was a realtor. Max was the postmaster for many years of Mableton, Georgia, a position from which he only recently retired.
With the increase in the city’s population from a mere 2,000 in 1950 to 35,000 by the mid eighties, the job of governing grew more complex and time-consuming and the agencies of government proliferated. Thus in May 1985, in the last month’s of Arthur Bacon’s administration, the mayor and council established the position of City Administrator to oversee Smyrna’s increasingly complex day-to-day operations. John Patterson, an experienced administrator, was appointed to this important post, a position he held through the first phase of the downtown renewal project. Five other city administrators have occupied this position in the years since. Still, the principal source of authority and of policy initiatives in Smyrna rests with the mayor and city council.
Max Bacon succeeded his father as mayor on Nov. 18, 1985, three weeks after his father’s demise by unanimous vote of the city council. Other candidates were mentioned at the time, but none chose to challenge Bacon.
The new mayor was confident that Smyrna would continue experiencing rapid development, lying as it did astride the so-called “Platinum Triangle,” the area in which the Galleria and Cumberland Malls are situated (an area which today contains more office space than downtown Atlanta). While the Platinum Triangle is situated just outside of Smyrna, this expanding commercial zone fostered significant residential and commercial development in the Jonquil City.
Another factor that greatly encouraged growth was the pro development climate that prevailed in the city. Taxes were low and the process of obtaining approval for projects was relatively uncomplicated.
In addition to encouraging continued growth, the new mayor announced the additional goal of encouraging the type of growth that would enhance the quality of life of Smyrna’s residents. In 1985, just prior to assuming the mayoralty, Bacon noted of this challenge: “In 1979 we approved $7 million in building permits. Last year  we approved $70 million.” But he added the cautionary note: “With that kind of growth we have to be careful.”
While Marietta remained the largest Cobb County municipality, containing nearly 40,000 residents, Smyrna was rapidly catching up. The Jonquil City was already the most densely populated municipality in Cobb County.
As late as the 1950s there had been only one small apartment complex in the entire city. Much of the development since had taken the form of apartment construction, and some of the older complexes, most owned by absentee landlords, were already by the mid-1980s in a state of advanced deterioration. In 1985 a majority of the city’s residents were living in apartments.
The Mayor also believed that the city had to take a more aggressive approach to annexations if it was to realize its fullest potential. This required keeping rapidly expanding Marietta from absorbing nearby unincorporated acreage and also preventing Cobb County from blocking annexations. The county considered various stratagems to slow down or eliminate further annexations which, threatened the county’s tax base. One such proposal called for the creation of a sixth municipality —to be called the City of Cobb—that would encompass all remaining unincorporated land and thus obviate further annexations.
Max Bacon strongly opposed all such schemes and annexations continued to be vigorously pursued. In 1987 alone Smyrna absorbed an additional 453 acres. In the period 1980 to 1987, the city annexed some 2,419 acres, an area equivalent to one third of Smyrna’s current size.
The mayor also supported a movement to annex the portions of the heavily black Davenport Town-Rose Garden Hills neighborhood that still lay outside the city’s boundaries. Much of the black enclave had been annexed in 1983 during Arthur Bacon’s administration. In annexing this neighborhood the city reversed a policy it had laid down in 1969 by unanimous vote of the city council stating that Smyrna would not, under any circumstances, annex any part of Davenport Town or Rose Garden Hills or consider extending city services into that black neighborhood, notwithstanding the fact that the Davenport Town-Rose Garden Hills neighborhood was already completely surrounded by the city.
A part of this black neighborhood that had not been absorbed in 1983, an area known as “the hole,” had in the meantime developed drug and crime problems which Cobb County was incapable of policing effectively. When the residents of the area, led by the Reverend James Hearst, pastor of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, petitioned the city to absorb this crime infested area in 1993, the mayor and council readily agreed. The annexation of the Davenport-Rose Garden Hills neighborhood was indicative, I would suggest, of two phenomena: improving race relations in Smyrna and a concern that the city’s emerging suburban image not be tainted.
A shift away from the building of apartments and toward the construction free standing owner-occupied residential units was one of the city’s principal goals in these years. Smyrna adopted a temporary ban on the construction of apartment buildings as early as October 1993 after a study by Cobb County showed that the Jonquil City had become the county’s most densely populated municipality and that over two-thirds of all the residential units in the Smyrna-Vinings- Cumberland area were apartments.
However, the most important steps in the reinvention of Smyrna, stemmed from the widening, at long last, of Atlanta Road, the demolition of the old downtown, and the construction of a complex of state-of-the-art municipal and commercial structures along the western side of that thoroughfare.
The widening of Atlanta Road was completed in June 1987 at a cost of $3.2 million, which covered the purchase of rights of way as well as utility relocation costs, with the state picking up the tab for engineering and construction.
The downtown had been in decline for a quarter century. The buildings in the commercial strip were small, cramped, poorly heated and poorly lit, and were losing patronage. A number of them had been converted into antique shops, in itself a sure sign of commercial decline.
The first step in the demolition of the old downtown involved the removal of the buildings along the east side of Atlanta Road, buildings that backed up to the tracks of the old W&A line. This initial step was carried out in the fall of 1987 and aroused little opposition. Nor was there significant opposition to the subsequent demolition of commercial structures along the western side of Atlanta Road, which followed on a piecemeal basis over the next two years. A group calling itself “Save Old Smyrna” was formed to oppose the wholesale demolition of the old downtown, but it never attracted significant support.
The demolition of residential structures to make way for new and improved public facilities proved far more difficult and controversial. Reconciling owners to the loss of their homes was understandably a difficult and protracted process. This was especially true in the case of Sunset Avenue, the street that ran through the site where the new community center and public library were slated to be built.
Another fixed objective of the new mayor was to make these improvements without raising taxes. An increased tax rate, it was understood, would discourage prospective new residents and businesses from moving into Smyrna. While the city had not increased its millage rate since 1958, the other basis upon which real estate taxes were calculated, assessed valuations, were rising. The public required assurances that the contemplated improvements would not lead to a heavier tax burden.
By the same token, municipal services had to be maintained and even improved if continued residential and commercial expansion was to take place. Former City Councilman and State Senator Hugh Ragan, who served on the Council in the late 1980s, credited Smyrna’s sustained rate of development to a combination of low taxes and the town’s pro-business policies.
But the city also had to offer prospective residents efficient municipal services. In 1989 Mayor Bacon boasted that Smyrna was already providing its people with the “best services of any municipality in Cobb County” and committed the city to maintain and augment those services.
In championing large-scale urban renewal for the downtown the mayor and council assumed considerable political risk.
The spectacularly effective downtown renewal project that took shape in the decade of the 1990s, it should be emphasized, enjoyed the active backing of the members of the city council.
In a conversation with this writer the Mayor expressed particular appreciation to Councilman Charles “Pete Wood,” a banker, who served continuously on the council from 1989 to 2012, for his sage financial advice, which the mayor asserted helped the city avoid many financial pitfalls. The relationship between the mayor and his council colleagues was generally collaborative. Other councilmen and women who served throughout the amazingly transformative decade of the 1990s included Charlene Capilouto, Wade Lnenicka, Ron Newcomb, Bill Scoggins, and Jim Hawkins.
The idea of building a community center had been in the works for about five years before the project was finally launched. The city had long since outgrown its public library, a modest facility dating from 1961. Several locations were considered before the centrally located Sunset Avenue site was chosen for both new structures. The $15 million project would be paid for by the sale of municipal bonds. A bond issue did not require a public referendum, and rather than risk the possibility of rejection by the voters, the Mayor decided to move forward on the basis of council approval only, trusting that once the new structures were in place, public opinion would favor the project.
The building of a modern city center on generous grounds, a complex of handsome buildings that included a community center, a state-of-the-art public library, a park/ arboretum, a new city hall, and modern police and fire headquarters, as well as a variety of architecturally coordinated commercial and residential structures, all centrally located and handsomely landscaped, was a decade long process, and a triumph of city planning and creative financing. This new downtown, which arose in stages over the next decade fundamentally altered Smyrna’s image. What occurred in downtown Smyrna in these years was more than urban renewal—it was a veritable urban heart transplant.
With the goal of muting criticism that the city was being run with insufficient public input, in April 1989 the Smyrna Downtown Development Authority was established to guide the renewal process. Initially the authority, which operated under the chairmanship of the mayor included a cadre of just seven individuals—former Ward 7 Councilman Hubert Black; Councilman Jimmy Wilson; two businessmen, C. F. Fouts, owner of an auto service station; bank executive Charles “Pete” Wood (who shortly thereafter joined the council); also, City Clerk Willouise Spivey, attorney E. Alton Curtis, Jr.; and local dentist Dr. Jim Pitts. The size of the authority would be expanded over the years to encompass a broader cross-section of citizens.
The design contract for the community center and library went to the distinguished Atlanta-based architectural firm of Sizemore-Floyd. The architecture of new downtown that took shape over the next several years has been described as being in the “Williamsburg” style. The Sizemore-Floyd firm, in fact, designed all of major buildings in Smyrna’s new downtown, which lent the ensemble a pleasing, neo-classical architectural unity.
The first component, the handsome community center and public library buildings, were dedicated in early August 1991 in a ceremony that featured fireworks, music, hot air balloons, rides, and speeches from a litany of local politicians. One councilman went so far as to declare that the new library and community center were “the best thing to have happened to Smyrna” since Sherman rampaged through the town in 1864.
- [Smyrna Community Center]
The dedication of these new public facilities coincided with the 1991 election season in which candidates were vying for the first time for four-year terms.
The timing of the library and community center openings was, on its face, fortunate for Mayor Bacon, in that it offered tangible evidence of the rehabilitation the city was undergoing, but in other respects Smyrna in 1991 had been experiencing a run of bad luck that included a failed attempt to close down a nude dance club (the state supreme court forbade the closing on constitutional grounds); the proposed and somewhat controversial city purchase and condemnation of the badly deteriorated Heritage Pointe Apartment Complex; as well as some minor scandals involving city employees.
The Mayor’s sole opponent in this 1991 election was a 70-year old widow named Lena Dene Lindsey, who criticized him for proceeding with the project without a referendum. She also criticized Bacon for taking private property to make way for the new buildings. In addition, the challenger made an issue of the city’s $800,000 purchase from the Fouts Brothers, long-time supporters of both Arthur and Max Bacon, of a 10-acre property on Atlanta Road for a public works yard, charging that the city had overpaid for the property.
The mayor’s allies did their best to discredit this nettlesome challenger . “A 70-year old woman doesn’t know how to run a city,” C. F. Fouts declared, a remark that probably alienated many of the city’s female and senior voters.
Also the laggard economy of the early 1990s had slowed the rate of development and the city had been obliged to borrow to pay off the first installment of its $15 million revenue bond (payable in 23 installments of more than $1 million apiece), again raising the specter of higher taxes.
The mayor met these criticisms with assurances that taxes would not be raised and with a promise that voter approval would be sought for the second stage of the renewal project.
Notwithstanding her age, her lack of political experience, and her miniscule campaign chest of just $800, Mrs. Lindsey garnered 42 percent of the vote in the 1991 mayoral race. If a better known and better financed candidate had challenged Max Bacon in 1991, it is entirely possible that he might have suffered defeat in that election, as he himself admitted to this writer. Never again, however, would Max Bacon be seriously challenged In a mayoral race.
A rapidly rising population of illegal immigrants became a hot political issue of the late 1980s and 1990s. The Platinum Triangle, with its many service industry jobs, was a magnet for immigrants, legal and illegal alike, many of whom took up residence in the plethora of apartments available in adjacent Smyrna. By the late 1980s, there were an estimated 6,000 immigrants, mostly Hispanic, residing in the city, 80 percent of whom were said to be illegals.
In April 1994 the city took the next major step in the downtown renewal project by seeking voter approval for $7.65 million for the construction of a new police station and jail. To the immense satisfaction of the mayor, this police station bond issue won approval by a huge margin–nearly four out of five voters favored it. Thus a handsome new police station/ jail was added to the so-called Village Green complex, a building dedicated in 1997.
- [Smyrna City Hall]
The next phase of Smyrna’s downtown renewal —the building of new city hall/ courthouse —was accomplished, remarkably, at no cost to the city. Smyrna had purchased a 460 unit, badly deteriorated 1970 apartment complex from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—Heritage Pointe— conspicuously located at the intersection of Cumberland Boulevard and Cobb Parkway. The purchase was made with the goal of both rehabilitating the complex and reducing its density, part of the effort to shift the balance of the city’s housing toward more owner-occupied dwellings. Smyrna more than recouped its investment by selling the complex, in turn, to two developers —Thomas Enterprises of Dunwoody and Teague-Ausburn properties of Buckhead—at cost in exchange for a commitment to not only rehabilitate, but to significantly reduce the density of Heritage Pointe, but to contribute in other significant ways to the downtown renewal project.
Twenty acres of the Heritage Pointe complex was immediately taken down for a shopping center, while 180 of its badly deteriorated units were extensively rehabilitated. In exchange for ownership of Heritage Pointe, Teague-Ausburn constructed 65 town houses along the western edge of the new downtown (on Bank and Hamby Streets), while Thomas Enterprises provided new retail space and 19,000 square feet of office space in what is now Market Village.
Thomas Enterprises and Teague Auburn also contributed the $3 million required for the construction of Smyrna’s handsome and centrally located new City Hall/ Municipal Courthouse building, the jewel in the crown of the new downtown. All of this was accomplished, moreover, without raising taxes.
The moratorium on the building of new apartment buildings, together with the city’s pro-active role in promoting the rehabilitation of existing apartment complexes had the effect of changing the ratio of apartment units to owner occupied dwellings from a 2:1 ratio in the 1980s to a current more desirable 1:1 ratio.
Also built in this period was a $700,000 adult recreation and aquatics center for the city’s senior citizens, situated at the western end of Church Street on a piece of land that had formerly housed a teen youth center.
The last major structure to be built in the new downtown, a new central fire station, opened in 1999 just north of the police station.
- [Smyrna Police Station]
Chief among the many amenities the city provides its growing population today is an extensive system of parks, which it continues to improve and expand year by year. In 2005 a $22 million bond issue was approved by the city’s voters for the enhancement of this outstanding park system.
Smyrna has earned many awards for its downtown redevelopment project, including the Georgia Municipal Association’s Innovative Achievement Award in 1991 and the prestigious Urban Land Institute’s Award of Excellence in 1997.
While the old downtown has disappeared, much of Smyrna’s older architectural fabric has survived, most notably in the area around the Concord Covered Bridge, the old Mill Village, and the ruins of the of the Concord Woolen Factory, now set in Heritage Park.
As part of the downtown redevelopment project the city established the Smyrna Museum across Atlanta Road from Market Village in a building that replicates, in its external appearance, the 1907 Smyrna Depot (casually demolished back in 1957 at a time when there was scant concern for historic preservation). The Smyrna Historical & Genealogical Society, founded in 1985 under the leadership of Betty and Harold Smith, administers the museum.
In addition, the oldest part of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, the famous Campbell Road restaurant, was moved to a parcel adjacent to the museum, where it serves today as the city’s official visitors center. The handsome Guernsey Jug, another former eating establishment, originally part of the Creatwood Dairy complex on Atlanta Road, has likewise been preserved, slightly repositioned, and now functions as a clubhouse for a local housing complex.
And most recently, the Taylor-Brawner House Foundation, under the leadership of Lillie Wood, Mike Terry, and other presevation-minded citizens raised a half million dollars to rehabilitate the historic Taylor-Brawner house, while the city renovated the Greek Revival style Brawner Sanitorium building, now known as Brawner Hall. This city-owned facility provides office space for two city departments, training classrooms, conference rooms, and a stately reception room. These properties sit, moreover, in a 10-acre park that features a gazebo, two picnic pavilions, a walking trail, an amphitheater, a playground, and open space. These historic buildings were recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, the first Smyrna properties to be so designated.
There are in addition many individual Smyrna properties that warrant a measure of historical and architectural attention. The Williams Park neighborhood, which lies directly across Atlanta Road from Market Village, for example, contains a sizeable concentration of historic houses built between 1884 and the early 1920s that warrant consideration for National Register listing.
While the 2008 recession significantly slowed development in Smyrna, there are strong indications that the city’s economy is rebounding. The Jonquil City—now one of Metropolitan Atlanta’s premier suburbs—is clearly poised for additional quality development in the years ahead.