By Dyana Bagby and John Ruch
On a recent Friday evening, families and couples were filling up Nancy G’s, the casual dining restaurant tucked into a back corner of the Fountain Oaks Shopping Center off Roswell Road.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years,” says Nancy Goodrich, owner of the restaurant, as she greets customers at the door. Although she’s speaking of the anniversary of her dining spot, she also knows that Nancy G’s shares its anniversary with the beginning of incorporated Sandy Springs.
“I feel like we’re growing up together,” she said.
Consistency in service and food are what make Nancy G’s successful today, Goodrich says. And she believes those traits are also what makes Sandy Springs a thriving city now. For City Councilman Tibby DeJulio, elected to represent District 5 in the city’s first election a decade ago and who still sits on the council, it is consistency and quality of service from the city’s government that ensures its approximately 102,000 residents are safe and pleased with its leadership.
“The city is run on a very professional basis,” he said. “Not only have we evolved and progressed better than we expected, we have done better than we ever hoped to.”
DECADES OF LOBBYING FOR CITY
In 1987, DeJulio became embroiled in a zoning battle with Fulton County when county officials planned to tear down houses across the street from his home in order to build apartment buildings. DeJulio said he argued before the Fulton County Commission to stop the plans — and he won. Shortly after, he met Eva Galambos, known as the mother of Sandy Springs.
“She told me what she was trying to do and asked me to join,” DeJulio remembered. “And then I went to a meeting of the Committee for Sandy Springs.”
Galambos and others had formed the committee in 1975 after the city of Atlanta attempted to annex Sandy Springs. Those living in Sandy Springs were unhappy with Fulton County services, such as police protection, and they also felt their tax dollars were being used to bolster the less financially stable south Fulton. Zoning battles between Sandy Springs and the county, which wanted more development, were common.
And while state Democrats accused the Sandy Springs cityhood movement of being nothing more than “white flight” and used their power in the General Assembly to block cityhood efforts, DeJulio said Sandy Springs residents were simply tired of being tied to a non-responsive Fulton County government. One county study showed Sandy Springs residents sent $91 million more to Fulton County than they received in services annually.
The first meetings of the Committee for Sandy Springs were primarily organizational, DeJulio said. They dealt with matters such as determining what kind of structure the city would have and who would be making decisions.
The meetings were held in members’ homes, in boardrooms of local businesses and also in the Sandy Springs United Methodist Church.
“It was a time when we knew we had a lot of work to do, a lot of people to lobby. Atlanta was very open about wanting to annex us only for our revenue — the city never talked about what it could do to help Sandy Springs,” DeJulio said.
And lobby they did. Volunteers with the committee spent weeks and months, eventually more than 20 years, lobbying legislators under the Gold Dome, asking them to pass legislation to put a referendum on the ballot that would give residents of Sandy Springs a chance to vote to incorporate their city.
“Every year we hoped, and every year we tried different angles at the Legislature,” said Carolyn Axt, recently retired executive director of Leadership Sandy Springs. “Eva would come and talk to our class every year and give an update on efforts. And every year we wouldn’t quite get it through.”
DeJulio said he and Galambos spent many days and nights speaking publicly about the benefits of incorporating Sandy Springs, including having local governmental control and deciding how the city’s money would be spent.
Three studies done by the Vinson Institute of the University of Georgia showed cityhood was right for Sandy Springs, he said.
“When we had debates on the pros and cons of cityhood, we were hard pressed to find someone from the other side. We often had to get someone from Atlanta or from Fulton County to represent the opposition,” DeJulio said.
In 2005, with Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue in office and a Republican majority in the House and Senate, Sandy Springs finally got its wish — the Legislature authorized a referendum for Sandy Springs. This marked the first time in some 50 years that residents would get to vote to create a new city in Georgia.
“Eva came to talk to our class that year and said, ‘Guess what? We’re going to have a city,’” Axt remembered. “And then we had a short time to put everything together and the community quickly came together. The dog had caught the train and we had to make sure we were ready.”
‘A CITY RUN ON A PROFESSIONAL BASIS’
The referendum was set for June 21, 2005. When the votes were counted, 94 percent of Sandy Springs’ voters said they wanted to incorporate. “It was a day of great celebration.
We met that night at Heritage Sandy Springs and celebrated and proclaimed victory. But we also knew it was the beginning of a huge amount of work that needed to be done,” said DeJulio.
After a night of celebrating and a few hours of sleep, those working to create the city of Sandy Springs woke up the next morning ready to get to work. Task forces were formed immediately to take on issues including police and fire, finances, administration and public works.
“Eva and I spent about 17 years working to form the city. And during that time we did a lot of planning,” said DeJulio. “We pretty much knew what had to be done.”
Not wanting a bureaucracy, volunteers working to set up Sandy Springs’ government decided it would be best to run the city like a corporate board structure — with a mayor as the CEO and the council as the board of directors.
“We wanted the city run on a professional basis. We didn’t want to have a lot of people hiring relatives, for example,” DeJulio said. This meant hiring a private company to run much of the city’s departments, other than police and fire — something unheard of at the time for municipal governments.
Now Sandy Springs stands as a model city for others desiring private-public partnerships. The city’s first election was held in
November 2005. Galambos was easily elected mayor. And when it came to hiring the city manager, she conducted an unconventional interview.
“The phone call comes. The headhunter says…‘I’ve got this really interesting opportunity. This opportunity
is not traditional. This is something different,” remembered John McDonough, the city’s first and only city manager.
McDonough applied and was interviewed by “citizens screening committees” and then he met with Mayor Galambos at Island Ford Park on the Chattahoochee. “She got her hiking boots on. She said, ‘Let’s go for a hike.’
Off we went, had an impromptu hike,” while she interviewed him. “Eva was just the epitome of a leader… She was so impressive, had a clear vision,” he said.
At midnight on Dec. 1, 2005, the reins were turned over from Fulton County to the fledgling Sandy Springs.
“It was like turning on a light switch,” DeJulio said. “We had to be prepared to run an entire city.”
City Council members were sworn in on the eve of Nov. 30 and then again shortly after midnight on Dec. 1 to ensure all was legal, DeJulio said.
The first order of business was to hire Colorado-based CH2M Hill to run the daily operations of the city. With a private corporation in place to run the city, the mayor and council took on its first priority in the coming weeks — establishing its own police and fire departments, with both coming online in 2006.
In 2011, the city decided to do away with CH2M Hill and instead go with several private companies to operate individual city government departments like public works and administration. This saved the city $7 million in operating costs, DeJulio said.
“In 10 years we have never had a tax increase and we can’t have one without a referendum,” he said. “We run a very lean city.”
During its last year under Fulton County control, Sandy Springs saw $600,000 spent on fixing roads; in its first year as a city, Sandy Springs spent $7 million, DeJulio said. In its first decade, Sandy Springs has paved more than 160 miles of roads and also rebuilt 25 miles of roads; the city has paved 20 miles of sidewalks.
“None of this was being handled before by Fulton County. Our requests were being ignored,” DeJulio said.
Sandy Springs leadership also knew it was crucial to preserve green space and establish a park system. The new city began buying land back from the county and eventually opened up such notable parks as Morgan Falls Overlook Park in 2010 and Abernathy Greenway in 2014.
Linda Bain, executive director of the Sandy Springs Conservancy, praises the city’s leadership in ensuring parks remain a key part of the city’s continuing development.
“We have really strong bones here,” she said of the city’s officials. What is somewhat lacking, however, is a sure Sandy Springs identity. In 2012, the city council approved a master plan for a $220 million City Center located on Roswell Road north of I-285.
The center will include a performing arts center, government meeting space, and some retail and residential units. The City Center, set to open in December 2017, is expected to give the city a much-needed symbolic site to better establish a city identity, said Axt and DeJulio.
“At one time, Sandy Springs was just a crossroads. Now it has developed into a vibrant, energetic, energized community,” Axt said. “We are no longer an experiment. We’ve always had a sense of belonging and now we are developing a sense of place.”
DeJulio is also optimistic that the City Center will provide the city a much-needed unifying space.
“We really are counting on it bringing the community together,” he said. “When I ask people if they live in Sandy Springs and they say, ‘No,’ I always tell them, ‘I’m very sorry. Maybe someday you’ll be lucky enough to live here.’”
This article comes as part of a special section in the Nov. 27 issue. Read it digitally: