UPDATE 5/8/2018: Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a bill that would allow part of the city of Stockbridge to be annexed if the new city of Eagles Landing is formed. This was one of the more controversial measures on his desk to sign by Tuesday's deadline.
ORIGINAL STORY: A bill that passed just hours before the end of this year’s legislative session is creating conflict for some residents of Henry County.
If Governor Nathan Deal signs it, voters could create the new city of Eagles Landing, and with it, their own government, tax base and services.
To do so, they would take away land, revenue and residents from the city of Stockbridge.
Vikki Consiglio is the chair of the Eagle’s Landing Educational Research Committee, the group that pushed for the bill.
She says folks in the area, which has higher per capita incomes and property values, just want more say over how their tax dollars are spent, and unincorporated parts of Eagles Landing have no representation in Stockbridge.
Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford disagrees. He calls the bill undemocratic, and says it threatens his city’s existence.
I traveled down I-75 and met up with Consiglio and Mayor Ford in different places along the main economic corridor that some residents call Stockbridge, others want to call Eagles Landing, and they all call home.
My conversation with Consiglio began in an empty lot behind a Waffle House. She points to a dense tract of trees stretching two miles along the interstate.
Currently, it’s undeveloped. But she sees it as a forest of opportunity for a new city.
“We’re looking to create a city where we can work, eat, shop, play, live,” Consiglio said. “And to have a place that folks don't have to get in their cars to drive ten exits up or ten exits down to go to the places that they like to frequent, which is the grocery stores or shopping malls or just little boutiques or fine dining restaurants. Those are things that we just don't have in this area and that we need.”
She says they would like to model the new Eagles Landing on the Alabama city of Mountain Brook just a few minutes outside of Birmingham. They have a million-square foot development called The Summit that features palatial homes and fancy shops.
Residents have a movie theater instead of medical supply stores, a Williams-Sonoma instead of a Walmart, and a Cheesecake Factory instead of a Chick-fil-A.
Outside a Starbucks less than a half mile from the Waffle House where Vikki Consiglio shared her vision, I meet Mayor Ford. He says city leaders have been working tirelessly to provide exactly that type of development just one exit down.
The proposed site of Jodeco South would be a 160-acre mixed use development at the far southern point of Stockbridge.
“…And that is exactly where we're going to attract those high end businesses and have some condos, single family homes, commercial property, live work and play concept, trail networks or whatnot in that area,” Ford said. “We're working with developers presently... I tell you, if we actually go down to the intersection of 75 and Jodeco Road, you'll see that the clearing is there, the construction equipment is there. It’s coming.”
Creating a new city could throw a wrench in those plans. The new development will be next door to Eagles Landing, but several miles from Stockbridge. So Mayor Ford offered state legislators a compromise that would still give a voice to those in unincorporated parts of the county.
“We presented with them an actual map that would align a designated area of Eagles Landing along with present city of Stockbridge and do actual council districts,” Ford said emphatically. “As a compromise. You say you want local representation? Well here is an idea for you: Where we expand the city, add the Eagles Landing and the unincorporated county area. This is how we’d like to come to you. If you want this. Check this out.”
He didn’t hear back from lawmakers. But Consiglio has her answer:
“Most certainly not.”
She continues: “They have annexed all the businesses that surround most of these neighborhoods. They've done nothing for this area and I don't see in the future that they would do anything. They want the money, but they don't want to provide the services.”
All the businesses that make up the annexed area of Eagle’s Landing Parkway represent more than just a place to go in Stockbridge.
Until Jodeco South gets developed, economically speaking, the mayor says this is Stockbridge.
“This is what they call the Eagles Landing area,” Ford says, gesturing to places like La Hacienda Mexican restaurant, a Shell gas station and a Walgreens. “But it is part of Stockbridge.”
“As a matter of fact, this entire economic corridor is a primary corridor that actually finances the city Stockbridge itself, all the way from Highway 42 going west to I-75, and on the other side of 75 is Hudson Bridge Road to Flippen Road.”
But it can be confusing.
Both the city of Stockbridge and the proposed city of Eagles Landing have feasibility studies that support their two stances. Stockbridge says Eagles Landing would be devastating for the city’s finances. Eagles Landing says there’s enough money to keep both of them afloat.
There’s one thing both Consiglio and Ford do agree on ¬– media reports and social media conversations framing things about race are off the mark.
“If you are familiar with the Eagle’s Landing area, 49% of our proposed city is going to be black,” Consiglio states. “These are affluent black residents.”
“So for someone to say this is affluent white only, that is not a true statement. They need to look at the demographics of income, of age, of population and demographics of race. And with it being a predominantly black city, we feel like those statements are untrue and folks are just not doing their homework.”
Ford says it’s not about race “because I represent everybody. It’s about the people and the hardworking people of the community.”
He thinks it’s more about political power, but he says there’s a perfectly good democratic process to handle that now – without carving up his city.
“If someone's not satisfied with me we need to have a dialogue, or when I come up for election you don’t vote for me, you vote for somebody else,” he counters. “Or you run yourself, get out and knock on the doors and run yourself, but you don't destroy a city like this.”
And that's the basis for why he’s fighting: for the people and for his city.
“I will fight until we can fight any more about this and get it right,” Ford said. “You just don't destroy a city like this.”
The bill now awaits Governor Deal’s signature or veto. Mayor Anthony Ford and Vikki Consiglio are preparing for the road that lies ahead, regardless of the outcome.
“We have to believe in the system,” Consiglio said. “We have to believe that there are folks out there who respect our right to vote. So that's what we're hoping for.”
She pauses, and says this is really all about the vote.
“That's what we're pushing right now: giving folks the opportunity to vote their form of government. It's not a takeover, it's not stealing. You can't steal when you're allowing folks to vote and let the citizens decide what they want to be.”
For Ford, it’s a different problem to tackle. New city or not, he’s still Mayor of Stockbridge, and there are still unhappy constituents.
“It's literally impossible in a sense to satisfy the requirements for 100 percent of people 100 percent of time,” he said. “So it will be some folks that I won't be able to reach.”
“They’ll be adamant to say ‘Hey no I don't want any part of this,’ so we go out to the majority and we have to work toward mending everything back together.
It’s a task Ford says he’s up for, once he knows the city will remain intact – “which will happen,” he adds.