Known as Jonquil City for the thousands of bright yellow flowers that bloom throughout the community every spring, Smyrna, Georgia boasts charming neighborhoods, a revitalized downtown, and 304 acres of park and green space. Some may remember Smyrna as the hometown of Julia Roberts, but the community deserves a place on the map for far more than Hollywood trivia.
Smyrna enjoys an ideal location just ten miles northwest of Atlanta—but without the traffic and headache of its better-known neighbor. The city of 56,000 has become a destination in its own right, with an exciting range of development projects and quality of life enhancements, from walking trails to waterfront dining. No wonder Money magazine named Smyrna one of the ‘Best Places to Live in the United States’ in 2018.
“I think one of the most attractive things about Smyrna is our location,” says Mayor Derek Norton, “our proximity to [Interstate] 75 and [Interstate] 285, to the Battery and Truist Park, to the Atlanta airport and downtown Atlanta. You can pretty much get anywhere from the city of Smyrna. There are not a whole lot of people trying to move out of the city of Smyrna; they’re all trying to move in.”
This influx is demonstrated in the “huge spike in population we’ve had over the last ten years,” Mayor Norton continues. “We offer something for everyone, whether it is recreational amenities and parklands, great restaurants, you name it. It’s a great place to do business, a great place to raise a family.”
Economic Development Director Andrea Worthy reiterates it is all about “location, location, location.” But, she also points out that the community has worked hard to offer as much as possible within its prime location. City leaders have “concentrated on their investments in placemaking and trails and infrastructure,” Worthy says. This effort was undertaken with the larger economic picture in mind. “The reality is large employers, when they’re looking to make location investments, are now looking to where their employees want to be,” she says.
“That is a game changer from twenty years ago when employers were looking to locate somewhere based on a tax incentive. They realized that there is a workers’ shortage in this country in the long term, and if they want to attract talent to their companies, they have to be in a place their employees want to be. And that’s one of the reasons that Smyrna is well poised to continue to move forward,” she adds.
This desirability has attracted a varied population. “We’re one of the most diverse communities in the state, and our strength comes from that diversity,” Mayor Norton says. “We have a great population, and we’re able to do a lot of things coming from that diversity strength that we have.”
The city recently launched a racial trust building initiative to help support its diverse population. “We’re inclusive of everyone here,” Mayor Norton says. “[We are] really focusing, as the mayor and counsel, on making sure that everybody knows they’re appreciated in this community, welcome here, and included in everything that we do.”
Smyrna’s civic-minded community came together during COVID to support one another. “It’s been tough [here] like everywhere, but I’ve never been prouder of a community like I have been of Smyrna, Georgia; for a pretty big city coming together like we have and showing how tight knit we really are,” Mayor Norton says.
A group of citizens launched a program called Support Smyrna to collect donations in order to buy grocery store gift cards for locals negatively affected by the pandemic. “We thought maybe we’d raise five or ten thousand dollars and help a few folks, and we ended up raising over $175,000 and just had a tremendous impact,” Mayor Norton remembers. “The community’s come together and navigated this as well as any community in the country.”
Development opportunities abound throughout Smyrna, despite the pandemic. Riverview Landing, a multiuse, waterfront project, just opened phase one and is about to launch phase two of its development. The project is particularly exciting because it gives residents an opportunity to enjoy the river, which is extremely rare in the Atlanta metro area.
“Smyrna, in the past five years, has really led an effort to provide public access down on the river,” Worthy says. The new development includes housing, a brewery, a coffee shop, a barbecue restaurant, a public park, an amphitheater for outdoor concerts, and a boat launch. “It’s a hidden gem down there,” Mayor Norton says.
International pharmaceutical giant UCB is expanding its United States headquarters, which is located in Smyrna. “It’s going be the greenest corporate building in the state,” Mayor Norton says. “We gave them some incentives to do that because we’re working on our energy efficiency and sustainability efforts in Smyrna, and we welcomed this when they brought is to us.” The expanded, state-of-the-art facility will be both LEED and WELL certified—a first in Georgia. The $47.5 million investment will bring approximately two hundred new jobs to the community.
Truist Park, home to the Atlanta Braves, provides a range of mixed-use opportunities. “It’s just a real game-changer for the entire Smyrna area,” Worthy says of the development potential. New housing, retail, and restaurants are all on the table. “That thing has been an economic engine,” Mayor Norton says of the stadium complex. “They’re packed 365 days a year, twenty-four hours a day.”
The city is in the initial phase of a joint project to build a pedestrian bridge over the busy Cobb Parkway to connect Smyrna to the Battery, a mixed-use development adjacent to Truist Park and just outside the city limits. “That will lead to a lot of walkability around that area,” Mayor Norton says.
Emerson Center, an aging office building located alongside Cobb Parkway, is set for a major refurbishment. “We’re actually receiving plans from developers now on that,” Mayor Norton says, “and there’s wide ranging opportunity there, from hotel to retail units to rooftops.”
Smyrna’s Windy Hill Road is also getting a remodel. The $42 million construction project will separate local traffic from through traffic and add a linear park to the busy thoroughfare. South Cobb Drive, which intersects Windy Hill Road, is due for a makeover. The city has allocated up to $15 million for infrastructure projects along it and is partnering with state agencies and the department of transportation to “really do a massive overhaul of that area which I think will lend itself to business investments and opportunity there,” Mayor Norton says.
Smyrna’s downtown is slated for redevelopment as well. “We’ve got a lot of investment dollars, public dollars slated for additions and improvements to our downtown,” Mayor Norton says. “It’s twenty-five years old it’s in need of a refresh. It’s vibrant right now, but we can always do better.” Previously, Smyrna earned a reputation for its leadership in downtown development during the 1990s, when the mixed-use concept was just starting to gain a foothold. “Smyrna was the starting point for mixed-use redevelopments of downtowns in the metro Atlanta area,” Worthy reports. The city won several awards for its novel efforts.
After leading the charge thirty years ago, the community is still eager to put innovative, transformative redevelopment at the forefront, and one can only imagine where Smyrna will be thirty years from now. “[We have] a lot ahead of us as we tackle other big infrastructure projects here in the city,” Mayor Norton says. “It’s a fun time to be doing what we’re doing in Smyrna.”