When Sam Massell, the unofficial mayor of Buckhead, announced his retirement from the Buckhead Coalition in January the community as a whole had to step back and consider what Buckhead looks like in the post-Massell era. A hiring committee set out with a daunting task: find someone to lead the Buckhead Coalition, an organization comprised of 100 of the most influential business and civic leaders dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for those who live, work, and play in the community. The Coalition is a driving force behind much of the community improvements throughout Buckhead and serves as a launchpad for action programs that require public and private sector support. For more than 30 years Massell was the president and was looked to as a leading voice in the direction of Buckhead organizations.
After substantial consideration and deliberation, the succession committee led by Dave Stockert and Joe Evans ultimately hired Jim Durrett, the respected leader of the Buckhead Community Improvement District (BCID). After accepting the role, Durrett realized he had a unique opportunity to bring to life an idea that had been kicked around behind the scenes for some time: uniting Livable Buckhead, the BCID, and the Buckhead Business Association under the umbrella of the Buckhead Coalition.
“A good number of us had been speaking for a while about how beneficial it would be if the organizations could coordinate in some formal way and collaborate in order to align our missions and be even more effective than we were separately,” explained Durrett.
In a season of upheaval and during a global pandemic Durrett stepped into his new role with enthusiasm and a healthy dose of apprehension. These are big shoes to fill after all, and with this new arrangement he will be effectively overseeing four major branches of Buckhead’s leadership organizations.
Dreaming Big in Buckhead
Durrett is uniquely suited for this position as he has been instrumental in the BCID for more than a decade. He has been behind efforts for large scale projects such as HUB404, the park that will one day top GA 400, and has an innate understanding of the connections between the organizations and nonprofits that make Buckhead tick and together make community improvement possible.
“We’ve always helped each other, this allows the organizations to increase efficiency,” said Matt Thiry, president-elect of the Buckhead Business Association (BBA). Though the four organizations in question have had goals that are often aligned, they have been working concurrently instead of cooperatively. “We may have been duplicating efforts and may not have accomplished our goals in the most efficient way.”
Ideas will flow more easily when sharing an office space and collaborative efforts will allow for bigger dreams to become reality. Denise Starling, Livable Buckhead’s Executive Director, is already hard at work to find ways to cooperate across departments and reduce the need for overhead – both in spending and in duplicated effort. Simple things such as sharing administrative costs and logistical burdens cuts down on the behind-the-scenes work that it takes to provide essential services to Buckhead.
Starling has been involved with the transportation, greenspace, and more residential-facing elements of Buckhead’s leadership for more than 20 years. She first started working with the Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association (BATMA) in 1999, and one of her earliest accomplishments was launching the Buc Shuttle in 2003. Later, in 2010 when City Councilmember Howard Shook conducted a review of greenspaces in the city which found that Buckhead had room for improvement, Starling and her team at BATMA jumped at the challenge and formed Livable Buckhead. The organization oversees sustainability efforts for both residents and the commercial businesses that call Buckhead home.
“We are essentially a nonprofit organization working to better the quality of life in Buckhead with a focus on sustainability initiatives,” said Starling, who admits that the scope of Livable Buckhead is at times so broad it is difficult to explain. Her team is the driving force behind some projects such as the Path400 initiative, ensuring that commercial office buildings have LEED certification, establishing recycling programs, and some less fun but still necessary tasks like working with zoning.
One such project that is currently underway is a continuation of the revitalization of Mountain Way Common where they are installing an orchard, bee apiary, and artist-painted picnic tables. “We do a lot of the touchy-feely things that you fall in love with,” she explained. These efforts improve the quality of life for those in Buckhead and are supported by companies and foundations which are now easier to access given the new unity with the BBA, Coalition, and CID.
Helping Each Other To Help All Of Us
While all four organizations may be working towards common goals, they also have their own distinct strengths. The BBA, for example, hosts weekly meetings for members and nonmembers alike. Though they look a little different these days– their “Second Cup” meetings take place via Zoom weekly rather than in person at Maggiano’s in Buckhead– these gatherings serve an important purpose in encouraging conversation between business leaders of various expertise levels in a networking capacity. “We have the very young startup, first day kind of business all the whole way up to the very large well-established buckhead businesses,” said Thiry. “We provide an opportunity for those businesses to interact in ways that they might not otherwise.”
Creating this new partnership at this particular time has presented unique challenges to Durrett and his team. “It’s really hard to step into a new role when you can’t easily get together to discuss with people issues like priorities, strategies, tactics, and everything that you have to work on needs to be done remotely,” Durrett said. Beyond the impacts of the pandemic, the organizations will also have to grapple with the social unrest and race issues that are plaguing our community, though having only stepped into his new role last week he doesn’t know just yet how these organizations will be able to effectively contend with such serious issues.
“I have my feelings about it but I also feel that it’s really important for me to respect the membership of the Buckhead Coalition because we are not monolithic,” said Durrett. “The Coalition is not what Jim Durrett is or what Jim Durrett believes or feels. My job is to work with the Coalition to get to a point where we can agree on what we need to be doing about it.”
Communication is a key part of this unification, and it is something that Durrett hopes will naturally flow in the days to come. He talks about the importance of “inviting more people” to sit around a “bigger table” when crucial conversations about Buckhead’s future arise. He hopes that by cooperating with and listening to others who might have previously not had a direct line to decision makers they will be able to improve the quality of life for those who live, work, and play in Buckhead.