Life

Chick fil-A CEO built a dream “progressive” community. Black residents say it’s racist.

Dan Cathy, Chick fil-A, racist community, Trilith, Atlanta, Georgia
Dan CathyPhoto: YouTube screenshot

The family trust of Dan Cathy, the 69-year-old billionaire who is chairman of the notoriously anti-LGBTQ fast-food chain Chick fil-A, made a significant 2019 investment in the development of Trilith — a 235-acre housing development in Fayetteville, Georgia.

Located near the nation’s second-largest studio complex for TV and film production — one that has been regularly used by Disney’s Marvel Studios and Netflix productions — Trilith marketed itself as “a forward-thinking, diverse community” with a safe, neighborly, small-town vibe.

“Trilith is a place where makers live, create and inspire the world,” the development’s 2020 website stated. “Designed for the film and creative industries, this unprecedented community features filmmaking studios, homes, shopping and dining, trails and parks. Everything you need to make anything possible.”

Cathy and a team of developers modeled it after European villages, envisioning a picturesque studio community similar to what Disney built around Burbank, California. He spoke about Trilith at speaking engagements, recruited people to join its management team, and still occasionally speaks as a voice of Trilith’s future.

Cathy said of his vision for Trilith, “We’ve been very careful to envision a community that will attract a wide spectrum of people, that will inspire folks to live well, and to honor others. I believe this is the model for future generations.”

A former Trilith studio executive told BuzzFeed News, “[Cathy] wants to build an engine equal to Disney, and no one is going to question that. Chick fil-A runs this town. Everyone trusts what Dan Cathy says.”

But now that it’s been built and residents have moved in, Cathy’s dream community has a major problem: Black residents and employees of Trilth say that its residents and managers have made them feel largely unwelcome.

Black residents said that the property’s predominantly white managers have treated Black residents differently and that the neighbors have treated their children as suspicious, Buzzfeed News reports. Former employees of Trilith Studios and Trilith Development, the two companies that manage the properties, were sharply criticized or fired for wanting promotion within the organization.

Black resident Pam Williams said that in October 2018, three months after she and her family moved into a Trilith home, they discovered its roof had leaks that caused water damage. Despite requesting repairs from Trilith’s builders, their roof remained unrepaired for two years while two of their white neighbors’ leaky roofs were fixed within a year, Williams said.

Williams also said that town managers specifically forbade her family from having a fire pit and a pergola on their property even though their white neighbors had installed both without any disapproval from area managers.

Mela Geipel said that the area’s white residents don’t invite her to social outings even though she regularly invites them. She also says that residents “self-police” public recreation areas like the pool and basketball court. In May 2021, a police patrol car followed her 19-year-old dreadlocked son Dylan as he walked home from the basketball court — it was the first time ever that the family had seen a police car in the area.

The family said they didn’t know where to turn to file a complaint because Trilith’s homeowners’ association had no Black people on it. Additionally, Trilith had no diversity office, citizen advisory board, or other forum giving community members a place to share such concerns. When town President Rob Parker organized a meeting with the Geipel family and Fayetteville police, Geipel said that the room full of white men wouldn’t address her directly or make eye contact with her.

Joseph Sojourner was hired as Trilith Development’s executive director of experience to help create religious and community events in Trilith. But he said that Parker micromanaged him and gave him menial tasks. Sojourner said he was also made to feel like a “token,” as Parker turned to him to advise on issues of diversity and representation in the property’s marketing materials. When Sojourner requested a meeting with Cathy, who personally hired him, to discuss the issues, he was subsequently fired and “banned from all future endeavors at Trilith.”

Carmen Key said she saw hardly any Black people or non-Black people of color working in the area’s studios or adjoining office building where she worked. She saw Black people in service positions like cleaning and driving, but when she asked Trilith Studios’ top executives about the lack of diversity, she was told, “We want to have Black people here, but we need to have people at a certain level.”

Joy Hoffman, a white woman who once served as the Town’s creative director, said, “I tried to get more people of color hired, and [Trilith managers] told me they don’t have the budget for that beyond entry-level openings at the time.”

Security camera footage from Key’s front door showed her white neighbor, who had complained about loud music coming from Key’s home one time, had banged on her front door and referred to Key’s family as  “f**king [n-words].” Trilith’s Homeowners’ Association (HOA) said it swiftly condemned the neighbor’s behavior and sent a “cease and desist” to them. The HOA told Buzzfeed that it will take time to create “a community where all are welcomed, respected, and valued.”

When Key met with other non-white Trilith residents to compare experiences, she heard similar stories of discrimination. One Black father said his white neighbors unfairly accused his kids of damaging property even though security camera footage later revealed that white people had done it. A Latina mother said that city managers gave her family written permission to host a small celebration at the pool but then shut down the event after white residents complained.

The group of non-white residents say that Trilith needs new reforms and leadership as well as a place to file complaints. They also want Cathy to acknowledge the discrimination and for the community to take their voices into consideration as the area continues into the future.

But they also say that Cathy and Trilith’s managers seem eager to sweep their problems under the rug, and just never made considerations of what life in the community might be like for anyone who isn’t non-white or non-Christian.

Dan Cathy remains one of several notable Christian billionaires who are behind one of “the most sophisticated dark money operations” ever seen to pass anti-LGBTQ legislation and stop the Equality Act.

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