More than 25 people offered opinions on a proposal to build a roughly $6 million cultural center in Sandy Springs that would house the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust and the Anne Frank in the World exhibit. 

At an Aug. 9 Sandy Springs town hall meeting, some speakers supported the idea of the exhibits planned by the commission but spoke against the project due to concerns about the city’s financial obligation. 

Other residents who were in favor of the cultural center talked about the benefits and opportunities to attract more visitors to the city.

The cultural center is being proposed for 6110 Blue Stone Road, the former home of Heritage Sandy Springs. The city is discussing constructing a new facility on the property. The project would also include offices for Visit Sandy Springs and the police department. 

Sandy Springs proposes demolishing the Bluestone building at its Heritage site to replace it with a new cultural center. (Submitted)

The City Council is expected to vote on the proposal at its next meeting on Aug. 16. The public is encouraged to attend and comment. 

City Attorney Dan Lee told the City Council on Aug. 9 that for legal reasons, the city needed to keep ownership and control of the building.

The favored plan would be to construct a new building of approximately 13,000 square feet, with about 8,700 square feet for the Holocaust commission and its exhibits, Lee said. Rent for the commission and Visit Sandy Springs would be determined by design and construction costs based on the space each occupied. The commission would get a 20-year lease, with two options to extend the lease for five years each. Rent would begin escalating 1.5% in the fourth year of the lease, he said.

The Holocaust commission says it can provide a letter of credit for $3 million to back the project. 

The city of Sandy Springs designated $2.5 million in its fiscal year 2020 budget for the cultural center, but hasn’t provided a detailed explanation of what it would pay for the project. City officials say they won’t know how much construction will cost until they spend an estimated $600,000 for the project design. 

Against the project

Councilmember Jody Reichel questioned if this was the best use of the Heritage property and the best use of taxpayers’ dollars. She asked if the city had considered the market value of the Blue Stone property. 

Councilmember Jody Reichel (Submitted)

“I support the mission of the Georgia Holocaust Commission and appreciate their passion for this project. My concerns have been and continue to be about the museum’s funding and location,” Reichel said in an email after the meeting.

“I asked some important questions at our work session last night, and I look forward to receiving the data. It is our fiduciary duty to analyze and share the facts and then gauge the support of our citizens,” she said.

Resident Tricia Thompson, a long-time advocate with the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, was also against building the cultural center on Blue Stone Road. She said that in uncertain economic times with possible losses to the city, the City Council has an enormous responsibility to its residents to be as prudent as possible.

“An epic economic bomb has dropped with the possible loss of $25 million to the city funds,” Thompson said, referring to the potential loss of Local Option Sales Tax revenue if Fulton County’s request to increase its share from 4.9% to 35% is approved.

Resident Kimberly Oliver said she disagreed with the city going ahead and spending money on the design of the cultural center. She said the Holocaust commission should pay a share of the design costs upfront. 

“Secondly on the master plan, I have not seen anything regarding this on the master plan. So it seems to be a little bit ‘the cart before the horse’ to be planning and spending money on a project before we know how it’s going to be part of the master plan,” she said, referring to the City Springs master plan update that’s in progress. 

In favor of the project

Michael Galambos, the son of former Mayor Eva Galambos and Dr. John Galambos, spoke in favor of the project on Aug. 9. He said his family had a personal connection to Anne Frank as his mother was an immigrant who left Germany during the Nazi era, and his father ended up in the same concentration camp where Anne Frank died.

Michael Galambos, son of former Mayor Eva Galambos, spoke in favor of the project. (Bob Pepalis)

“Although there is that personal connection with the family that was not mom’s motivation in bringing the Anne Frank exhibit to Sandy Springs. She saw it as an opportunity to try to encourage tourism in the city,” he said.

If done correctly, this project will bring tens of thousands of people to Sandy Springs, making it a boon for local restaurants and enterprises, he said.

Sally Levine, the executive director of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust, said the state agency is mandated to provide Holocaust education to all Georgia citizens.

The space the Anne Frank in the World exhibit previously had at the Parkside Shops shopping center brought in more than 7,000 visitors every year, she said.

Adam Beck, the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, also spoke in favor of the project. 

“Young people need to understand what the worst of humanity looks like, how you work to prevent atrocity, and how you can feel empathy for those who faced so much,” he said.

David Birnbrey, a city resident and co-CEO of The Shopping Center Group, said the project would provide economic benefits to the city. 

“This is a real estate deal, and this is the highest and best use of the property. And this is the best economic value you can get for the property,” he said.

Attractions like this help increase property values, he said. Retailers look for these kinds of learning experiences and opportunities when they choose locations. To complete deals with Costco, Walmart, Kroger, Target or most other retailers, his company has to prove its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, Birnbrey said.

Chuck Berk, the chair of the Holocaust commission and a Sandy Springs resident, said the commission would meet on Monday and he expected its members to approve the terms the City Council plans to put in its proposal. 

Read more about the cultural center here.

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