How Smyrna went from ‘redneck town’ to growing economic powerhouse

William Marchione speaks on Smyrna's history (photo by Haisten Willis)

Over the last six weeks, local historian and author Bill Marchione has been presenting on on Smyrna history at the city’s downtown library.

On Monday, Marchione, a Boston native and author of “A Brief History of Smyrna, Georgia,”  wrapped up the series by speaking on the construction of the library itself, along with the rest of Smyrna’s award-winning downtown transformation.

Smyrna in recent years has been named one of the hottest real estate markets in all of Georgia, attracting young professionals thanks to its proximity to Atlanta, amenities like bike trails and large parks, attractive downtown and now the presence of SunTrust Park just beyond the city limits.

It wasn’t like that in 1985.

Marchione’s presentation specifically covered the period of 1985 through the present, a period which, not coincidentally, spans the tenure of longtime Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon.

National Geographic famously described Smyrna as a “redneck town” in a 1988 story about Atlanta. Accurate or not, that perception would not be easy to dispel.

The Bacon years

The revitalization of Smyrna’s downtown is Bacon’s signature accomplishment, argued Marchione.

Originally built for its proximity to rail, Smyrna’s downtown was ill-equipped for the shift to personal vehicles after World War II. The stores were small, old, not well ventilated and offered very little in the way of parking. By the 1960s, most businesses had closed or were operating as antique shops.

Marchione also went into Bacon’s personal history in the city. His grandfather, Robert H. Bacon, moved the family to the Williams Park neighborhood, worked for the railroad and served a single Smyrna city council term in the 1940s. Bacon’s father, Arthur Bacon, grew up in the area and was named “Mr. Marietta High” after starring as an athlete at the school.

The elder Bacon served in World War II and experienced the Great Depression, and Max Bacon describes him as a supportive but not quite nurturing father. Max describes himself as being more like his mother, Dorothy Bacon.

“There’s an emotional undercurrent to Max Bacon,” said Marchione, who interviewed Bacon for four hours over two sessions ahead of the presentation. “He’s very nostalgic.”

Arthur Bacon served as Smyrna mayor from 1976-77 and again from 1982-85. The second of four children, Max Bacon graduated from Campbell High School in 1966 and was first elected to the city council in 1979 while working full time as postmaster in Smyrna and Mableton.

Max describes the four years he spent on the city council with his father serving as mayor as the closest the two ever became. Village Parkway was constructed during the elder Bacon’s term, and the bridge over Windy Hill Road near its intersection with Atlanta Road is named for him.

Sadly, in 1985 Arthur Bacon died in office. The city council appointed Max to fill his unexpired term, and Bacon has won every re-election battle since.

Max Bacon had long been interested in reviving downtown. For example, in 1980 he was part of a group called Save Old Smyrna.

But the plan he spearheaded did a lot more than just “save” downtown. The plan called for several buildings, including an entire residential neighborhood, to be demolished in favor of brand-new, multimillion-dollar construction.

Groundbreaking began in 1990, and the library where Marchione was speaking opened in 1991 along with the community center. Constructed in the Williamsburg style of architecture, the library won a national design award. A new city hall followed in 1996, a new fire station in 1997, and Market Village opened in 2002, completing the revitalized downtown.

However, the project was almost halted after the initial phase. There was no public referendum and it proved to be quite controversial, nearly costing Bacon the 1991 election. He escaped with a narrow victory and hasn’t come close to losing his post since. Should he choose to run again, Bacon’s next re-election campaign will come in 2019.

A somewhat less dramatic aspect of Smyrna’s improved reputation is a 12-year moratorium placed on new apartment buildings enacted in the early 2000s. According to Marchione and Bacon, several new complexes built in Smyrna in the 1970s began life as “luxury apartments,” but had become rundown by the 1990s.

Bacon described the complexes as a drain on city resources, and said the ratio of apartments to single-family homes climbed as high as 2:1 at times. Following the 12-year moratorium and the demolition of some complexes by the city, the ratio is now closer to 1:1.

While there are many factors that have led to Smyrna’s revitalization, for example, the trend of young professionals looking to move closer to the big city, there’s no denying the significance of downtown as a focal point of the city’s growth.

“The new downtown changed the image of Smyrna,” said Marchione, who predicted Smyrna will overtake Marietta as Cobb County’s largest city by 2020. “It was more than a facelift, it was a heart transplant.”