Heritage Sandy Springs, the nonprofit dedicated to the city’s history and culture, spends a lot of time preserving the past. But now it’s also drawing up big plans for its own future as a new major attraction, the City Springs project, rises nearby.

A Heritage Sandy Springs master plan mapping future uses of its Heritage Green property.
A Heritage Sandy Springs master plan mapping future uses of its Heritage Green property.

This year, Heritage intends to build a new facility to better showcase its centerpiece attraction: the spring that gave Sandy Springs its name. A “Heritage Trail” connecting City Springs and Heritage with local history markers is in discussion, as is a possible museum expansion. And new strategic and master plans are guiding other upgrades and ideas, large and small.

“As we look ahead to 2016, Heritage Sandy Springs is at a pivotal moment in our community’s history as a new city center is being developed adjacent to our historic property,” wrote Heritage Executive Director Carol Thompson in the nonprofit’s 2015 annual report.

“It’s a perfect time for us to look at bigger projects,” Thompson said in a recent interview at Heritage’s office on Blue Stone Road. After several years of relatively routine operation, she said, Heritage is getting down to “the meat of who we are and why we’re here.”

“We’ve always been out on an island here,” Heritage board member Chip Emerson said of the organization’s site, known as Heritage Green. Better connections will be needed, he said, with several Roswell Road redevelopments underway that will add apartments in the area. “We know we’re going to have 3,000 people living within a five-minute walk,” he said.

Since its founding in 1984, Heritage has created some of Sandy Springs’ cultural touchstones. Heritage Green includes a historic house museum, serves as a central public park, and is home to such major community events as Concerts by the Springs and the Sandy Springs Festival.

But Heritage Green—bounded by Blue Stone Road, Hildebrand Drive, Sandy Springs Circle and Sandy Springs Place—is also one of the nonprofit’s challenges. Acquired piece-by-piece over decades and occupying most of a city block, it can be a confusing site to navigate and has some aging facilities, Thompson said.

The City Springs project is located about a block north of Heritage Green. Slated to open in late 2017, City Springs will have some uses overlapping Heritage’s cultural niche. That city-funded project combines a new City Hall with homes, commercial space, parks and a performing arts center.

Early planning meetings for City Springs gave Heritage officials a hint they should plan proactively, said Thompson. She recalled a meeting where a suggestion was made to replace a Hildebrand Drive car repair shop—the only non-Heritage property on the block—with a park. A Heritage board member privately drew up a plan for an urban park on the site, as well as a new museum expansion built into the hillside.

Last year, Heritage created a five-year strategic plan. Several changes and new programs have followed, such as the new “Sandy Springs Gazette” digital magazine of local history stories.

“One thing that came out of that was we needed to have a more concrete vision for our property,” said Thompson.

A top feature is improving the site of the historic spring where religious revival meetings of the 1840s led to the establishment of a community. Today, the spring is, as a Heritage presentation bluntly puts it, “a hole in the ground covered by a metal grate.” Many visitors are underwhelmed, Thompson and Emerson said.

“It gave the community and the city its name,” said Thompson. “We’re not trying to put up a big fountain. [But] we do want people to be able to see the water.”

“We want to make it a destination point, where people say, ‘I want to go see that,’” Emerson said.

Three competing architects are currently working on a redesign and Heritage has already raised $96,000 to build something. The competing proposals are due in about a month and a winner will be selected by a group of board members and possibly city officials or community members.

Assuming the proposal is feasible, Thompson said, Heritage wants construction to start in November. “Hopefully we can hit the ground running from those [plans],” she said.

Heritage is also talking with city officials about including the Heritage Trail in the City Springs designs. Similar self-guided history tour trails exist around the country, such as San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail, where medallions in the sidewalk mark historic sites, and Asheville, N.C.’s, Urban Trail, which combines sculptures and historic markers.

Emerson said Heritage’s version is in the early planning stages. But the idea is to install about 10 markers at the City Springs site that, rather than marking actual historic locations, would link via smartphone or computer to local history information. Placing an actual trail of such markers down the street to Heritage or other locations would be a second step.

Heritage officials have plenty of other ideas, too. Some are as big as the museum expansion. Others are relatively minor, such as a new effort to install a covering on the stage at Heritage Green’s Entertainment Lawn.

All of these efforts require significant fundraising and coordination with the city and the community. But Heritage is ready, Thompson said, to follow through on its new “conscious effort to get back to the history part of what we do.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.