An $8.6 million Cultural Center proposed by the city of Sandy Springs in a bid to be home to a state Holocaust memorial has shifted to a new location at City Springs, lost two partner organizations intended to fund it, and may change its name.

If its funding comes together, the center still would house an art gallery and the offices of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust and its exhibit “Anne Frank in the World,” which is currently on display in a Roswell Road shopping center.

A grassy area of the City Springs campus at Roswell Road and Mount Vernon Highway is now where the city proposes to build the Cultural Center. (John Ruch)

But the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce and Visit Sandy Springs, the city’s tourism bureau, have withdrawn from previous pledges to help fund the center and become tenants within it. And an auto shop the city bought last year for $1.8 million as the center’s site now will see some yet-to-be-determined other function, in the meantime being used by the city’s vehicle fleet team and a police bicycle patrol office.

The center now is planned for a grassy corner of the City Springs campus at the intersection of Roswell Road and Mount Vernon Highway, which officials previously said was left open for possible commercial development. The new site was chosen for better school bus access and proximity to the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun. The facility might be called something else as its focus might be more about history and education, she said.

Those changes — all decided behind the scenes — were announced in part at a Sept. 15 City Council meeting, where a resolution was adopted that outlined the plan. The resolution, which came after a two-hour private discussion in executive session, was needed for use by the commission to apply for a grant for some of its share of the funding, according to city officials.

The commission did not respond to comment requests. City Councilmember Andy Bauman is a member of the commission.

The change is the latest twist in a two-year-long saga of shifting plans as the city pursues a Holocaust memorial authorized in 2018 by the General Assembly. Complicating the situation is the uncertain status of the nearby Heritage Sandy Springs site, which the city abruptly took over this year when its namesake nonprofit went dormant amid the pandemic and other organization stresses.

Holocaust education has long been important in local culture. The city is home to one of metro Atlanta’s largest Jewish communities. Founding Mayor Eva Galambos — whose husband John was a Holocaust survivor — fought to get the Anne Frank exhibit in the city. The exhibit and the commission are housed at the Parkside Shopping Center at 5920 Roswell Road

The commission is charged with creating the new Holocaust memorial with fundraising help from a friends group. The initial idea of legislators was a memorial at the state Capitol in Atlanta. But from the start, there was talk of Sandy Springs either competing for the location or for a secondary memorial or display. It remains unclear exactly what would be proposed for the Cultural Center, but Kraun used the term “memorial.”

“The commission is considering a number of possible designs for a Holocaust memorial on the new site,” she said. “Decisions will be made based on space, building design, budget and availability of design components.”

Kraun previously said the city had been considering a Cultural Center since 2016. That was the year rumblings began about a possible standalone building to house the Anne Frank exhibit and Visit Sandy Springs, which at the time was housed in a connected office. The Holocaust memorial legslation was sponsored by two legislators who represent part of Sandy Springs: Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick and Rep. Deborah Silcox, the latter of whom said she hoped the city would house the memorial.

In 2018, shortly after the General Assembly authorized the memorial, the city made the surprise announcement of the Cultural Center concept, including the specific involvement of Visit Sandy Springs and the Chamber and with a design created by an architect. Mayor Rusty Paul claimed the concept essentially had been approved by the public as a concept in the 2012 City Center Master Plan that resulted in City Springs, but nothing so specific was in that plan. A community meeting held after the Cultural Center concept and design were announced resulted in no significant changes to the city’s plan.

Another surprise was the tentatively proposed location: the Buckhead Motor Works auto shop at 145 Hilderbrand Drive and an adjacent city-owned building used by Heritage Sandy Springs, a history and culture nonprofit that ran a neighboring museum. The city-owned building was pegged for Heritage’s own expansion in a 2016 master plan, but the entire Cultural Center concept was added to a revised master plan sometime in 2018 or 2019. Heritage did not respond to questions at time; earlier this year, its board chairman praised the concept, but just weeks later, the organization shut down operations as the city took over.

The City Council went on to approve the Cultural Center concept and the purchase of the auto shop. But those decisions came with rare dissension. City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio at the time questioned the expense of the auto shop purchase and said that all of the Cultural Center’s proposed uses except for Visit Sandy Springs were not the job of government and taxpayers to support. During the vote for the latest plan, however, he called the resolution “very appropriate.”

Tom Mahaffey, the Chamber’s president and CEO, earlier this year expressed excitement about his organization joining the Cultural Center. But now the Chamber will stay in the “King” skyscraper in Perimeter Center’s Concourse Center. Mahaffey now says he was “always a little apprehensive” about the move and that “it probably makes more sense to stay where we are” in the business district rather than deal with downtown Sandy Springs traffic. He said the city did not ask the Chamber to change its plan.

Visit Sandy Springs is out as well, with Executive Director Jennifer Cruce explaining only that “a lot has happened” since the original announcement. The Anne Frank exhibit remains the important part, she said.

Kraun said that Visit Sandy Springs eventually could end up at the general Heritage site, whose main office is on Blue Stone Road. Heritage was considered as a third option for the Cultural Center itself, she said. And the auto shop site may yet become part of the Heritage property after all, as Kraun said Paul noted that it was long conceived for such an expansion.

–John Ruch and Bob Pepalis

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