Heritage Sandy Springs, the nonprofit organization that long tended the area’s past, now faces an uncertain future.

The city is taking over operations of its museum, farmers market and concert series in the wake of the pandemic’s economic impact, in a deal announced in late April. But the situation was shaky before that, with the loss of an executive director last fall and, behind the scenes, a plan to postpone the 35-year-old Sandy Springs Festival. At this point, HSS will maintain its nonprofit status and control of its historic assets.

The Williams-Payne House, home to the Heritage Sandy Springs museum. (File)

“We are not out of business as an organization. It’s just that we’re sort of out of the real estate business,” said Bob Beard, president of the HSS board. “We’re totally focused on finding a way to have historic exhibits back up and running someday, some way. We’ll just reinvent ourselves some way.”

HSS long predates the incorporation of the city. It was founded in 1985 as the Sandy Springs Historic Community Foundation Inc., when it set its mission to promote history, steward a community park and enhance the cultural identity of Sandy Springs.

The Heritage Green site, which sits between Sandy Springs Circle and Blue Stone Road, is where the city’s namesake spring flows. The site is owned by the city as a park, but was operated by the nonprofit.

In recent years there had been signs of the city exerting more control over Heritage, including a slowdown on a redesign of the spring’s shelter and a city plan for a Cultural Center that will occupy space once pegged for a Heritage expansion.

On April 30 came an announcement  that HSS ended its agreement to operate the Heritage Green site, saying the pandemic was draining the organization’s reserve funds with no revenue possible.

Beard said the loss of rental income from the site and cancellation of its income-generating events made it impossible for HSS to continue operating the site.

City spokesperson Sharon Kraun said the city intends to keep the museum operations in place and is in talks with HSS board members about its future.

The nonprofit organization relied primarily on two sources of income: rental income and donations.

“During the spring is probably our seasonal peak period for rentals,” Beard said.

The spring on Heritage Green as it appeared in late 2015. (File)

The Heritage Green site, which Fulton County transferred to the city upon its incorporation in December 2005, is the location of the five freshwater springs from which Sandy Springs got its name. The lawn area is popular for weddings and other events.

The Williams-Payne House at 6075 Sandy Springs Circle includes the Garden Room event space in its lower level and the Museum in the top level. A building on Blue Stone Road held administrative offices; a library and archives; a board room; a community room; and Heritage Hall. An entertainment lawn was used for the organization’s Concerts by the Springs.

Cancellation of group events through the end of June due to the pandemic cut off that big source of revenue.

Rental income in 2018 brought the organization $312,395, according to forms filed with the IRS by HSS. Admissions totaled $50,427, with the farmers market adding $27,850 and food and beverage $6,100.

In 2018, Heritage Sandy Springs recorded revenue of $766,906. But its expenses exceeded that at $859,468, leaving it with a net loss of $92,562 on the year. That reduced its fund balances to $402,034.

With the executive director’s retirement in October 2019 and replacement by a non-paid board member, salary and benefit costs were reduced for the fourth quarter of 2019 and in 2020. But the total revenue from rental income and admissions was effectively zero in 2019 with the pandemic.

“We were two weeks away from missing a payroll. We weren’t going to wait for the employees’ last day to say we can’t pay anymore,” said Beard.

The four full-time employees were laid off and their last day was April 24.

HSS was also eyeing changes to its trademark annual street festival, a local September tradition. Attributing lower attendance in recent years to construction and weather, Beard said HSS had already decided before the pandemic not to hold the festival this fall.

“We made a conscious attempt to move it to spring before this happened,” Beard said.

Still in discussion is exactly how the city will take over operations.

“The real estate is owned by the city, always has been. We had a phenomenal rental agreement with them,” Beard said. The organization paid the city $1 in rent per year, and that agreement is what will be terminated.

HSS and the city have an agreement in principle.

Former Heritage Sandy Springs museum curator Keith Moore pictured in 2019 with a display in the exhibit “Grit, Gumption and Grace.” (File)

“We’re actually still negotiating the final wording on the city on that,” Beard said. “We’re working out the final logistics of how we’re going to have the agreement. The whole historic program, arts and history, will continue in some way, shape or form.”

Kraun said the city’s Performing Arts Center team will take over the rental operations and events.

“We plan to continue rental of the meeting and event spaces, which we expect to generate revenue as part of our City Springs rental programming,” Kraun said.

The city intends to continue operating the museum, she said.

While HSS packed away and moved its offices, outreach education materials and decorations that were reused at its events, the museum exhibits and its archives remain in place at the site. Beard said his group is in talks with the city to find a place for the exhibits and the archives, which document the history of Sandy Springs.

“The physical museum artifacts are still sitting where they were before, Beard said. “The permanent exhibits are still there.”

That includes the latest exhibit, “Grit, Gumption, & Grace: The Women of Sandy Springs.”

“If the pandemic was gone, we could work out with the city reopening the museum,” Beard said.

He said HSS had plenty of volunteers who worked at the museum as docents who would come back.

Since the organization no longer had control of the site, it was required to return historic items that were on loan to HSS under custodial rules and guidelines. The exhibits and historical items that the group owns remain in place, at least for now.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.