At midnight on April 1, 2009, dozens of people gathered in the parking lot at 41 Perimeter Center East to witness officers with the Dunwoody Police Department drive out on their first patrols of the newly formed city. Blue lights flashed and sirens wailed as the local residents cheered.
“I’ll never forget it,” Ken Wright said of that night. “The sights and sounds and excitement were incredible.”
Wright stood with the crowd that night as Dunwoody’s founding mayor. Just four months prior, on Dec. 1, 2008, nearly 82 percent of voters went to the polls and voted “yes” to create their own city. Wright and a team of volunteers and other council members quickly took on the job of forming a city from scratch, from hiring a police chief and police officers to awarding bids for management services to signing the lease for City Hall.
“I’m proud of the foundation we poured for Dunwoody and future leaders,” Wright said. “There were a lot of tough decisions, tough conversations, as we tried to make the right decisions on behalf of our community.”
Dunwoody’s path to cityhood and creating a new government was not an easy one. State lawmakers and DeKalb County officials at the time, led by the controversial and colorful CEO Vernon Jones, successfully fought off the cityhood efforts by Citizens for Dunwoody and Yes Dunwoody organizations for three years.
Opponents to Dunwoody argued the majority black DeKalb County would lose a sizable chunk of its tax base if the wealthy, mostly white community of some 35,000 people in north DeKalb broke off to form its own city and government. The loss in tax dollars would result in reduced services for the more than 700,000 county residents, they argued.
Cityhood proponents claimed their tax dollars were being wasted by a county government mired in controversy and scandal, including the CEO being accused of illegally using campaign funds in 2005 to promote passage of a $95 million parks bond referendum.
Desire for more local control of zoning, better police service and more infrastructure improvements, such as paving, were among the driving forces to create Dunwoody, said state Sen. Fran Millar.
“The number one thing was to get the services we were not getting,” Millar said. “It was not about race.”
Millar was in the state House at the time and assisted former state Sen. Dan Weber in getting the legislation to incorporate Dunwoody approved in the General Assembly.
“Dan Weber was the guiding force. It was his vision,” Millar said. “Vernon [Jones] made it easy, but Dan deserves the credit.”
Wright said he was also inspired by Eva Galambos, the founding mayor of Sandy Springs, to take up the fight to create Dunwoody. When he was president of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association and “she was trying to get pigs to fly” in neighboring Sandy Springs, Wright said Galambos would often attend DHA’s annual meeting to give updates about the lengthy legislative battle to put the city of Sandy Springs to a vote.
The “when pigs fly” reference is popular in Sandy Springs lore as a comment former state Sen. Vincent Fort supposedly said about the chances of Sandy Springs becoming its own city.
Sandy Springs was finally approved in 2005, becoming the first city to split from Fulton County control. Their success spurred Dunwoody to follow suit and after three years of tough battles, Dunwoody became the first city to separate from DeKalb County in 2008.
“We were the first to break the mold,” Wright said. “It was a firefight for two to three years.”
The next 10 years
It was apparent Millar was still stinging from his loss to Democrat Sally Harrell in the November election as he talked about the city’s changes over the past 10 years. A Dunwoody resident for nearly 40 years who represented the city at the General Assembly for 20 years, he only won the city by a few points.
People living in single-family dwellings were the backbone of the cityhood movement starting in 2005, Millar said. But single-family homeowners no longer dominate the city’s population of 50,000, and more and more residents are living in multifamily housing, he said.
“And you see changing demographics, obviously,” Millar said. “It’s a different Dunwoody going forward. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing,” he added.
Current Mayor Denis Shortal was on Dunwoody’s inaugural City Council and said the mission of the city today is the same as it was 10 years ago.
“To continue the enhancements of quality of life for our citizens,” he said. “The emphasis is to make sure all citizens know they are important. And the whole key is to keep in perspective the finances we have.
“The spirit of citizens that live here … they feel things are better, that’s my feeling,” Shortal added.
Major developments on the horizon in Perimeter Center will shape Dunwoody into the next decade, Wright said. The massive High Street mixed-use development, approved by DeKalb County a year before Dunwoody incorporated, is set to break ground next year. The development is expected to have 1,500 apartments and 1,500 condominiums as well as a hotel, a new office tower and retail space spanning 10 city blocks and 8 million square feet.
Grubb Properties’ planned redevelopment of Perimeter Center East, where the former City Hall is located and where the Dunwoody Police Department’s officers rolled out on their first patrols on April 1, 2009, includes 900 condominiums and a new office tower.
“The evolution of our business center brings with it a lot of new expenses, a lot of new potential police, strains on our infrastructure … things that go along with growth that the council will have to deal with,” Wright said.
Millar said that Perimeter Center will always be the city’s, and the region’s, economic engine. But the residential neighborhoods and communities surrounding the business center will remain the heart and soul of the city for years to come, he said.
“The bulk of our residents continue to see Dunwoody as a bedroom community,” he said. “We don’t consider ourselves an urban nexus.
“But much of Dunwoody is new and fresh and young people new and fresh,” he added. “That’s fine. You go with the flow and see what people want. That’s the world we live in.”
The bitter battle between Dunwoody and DeKalb County that raged a decade ago has mostly subsided, Millar said. He noted his work with DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond to get a special local option sales tax and a freeze on property taxes approved.
“The relationships are pretty good, much better than the previous regimes,” Millar said.
Wright, who lost a bruising battle with Democrat Mike Wilensky for the state House seat once held by Tom Taylor, said he believes it is important for current local leaders to make sure national political attitudes don’t impact local policy and elections.
“The political divide 10 years ago was not as harsh as it is today,” Wright said. “Keeping that divide away from our local governments — I hope that can be maintained. It’s nothing but harmful.”