Sandy Springs is moving ahead on an $8.6 million “Cultural Center” project contingent on a big co-payment from a Holocaust education group that could bring a new state memorial to the city. But the July 16 decision came with a rare split vote among City Council members, with one saying the project – which also would include offices for a Chamber of Commerce and a tourism agency – is not a proper city function.

Focusing on the Holocaust education element, Mayor Rusty Paul said that, having grown up in Alabama and its Civil Rights legacy, “…I know what hatred looks like. And we have got an opportunity … to shine a light in this community that will shine well beyond Sandy Springs.”

City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio.

City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio argued that the bulk of the Cultural Center’s proposed uses should be left to private organizations or businesses.

“As worthy as this project may be, this is not a project that is the responsibility of the city,” DeJulio said. “I want to be clear, I am not disputing the value of these facilities. What I am disputing is, these are not city functions.”

The Cultural Center, whose location is officially undetermined but likely somewhere near City Springs, partly would serve as a new home for the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust’s “Anne Frank in the World” exhibit (which is currently housed in a Roswell Road shopping center), the commission’s office, and possibly a new Holocaust memorial mandated by state legislation. It also would lease office space to the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce and Visit Sandy Springs, the city’s tourism promotion agency, which would run a visitors center.

City Councilmember Andy Bauman is a member of the commission, which he divulged during discussions.

The July 16 decision focused on moving forward with an understanding that the Friends of the Georgia Holocaust Commission, a fundraising group for the commission and the state memorial, would pay roughly $3 million of up-front costs. The decision was made by the city’s Public Facilities Authority, which is the mayor and City Council acting under a different name to make it technically legal for the city to arrange long-term leases of public space.

A brief city presentation estimated the Cultural Center’s total cost at $8,622,210, including development, construction and contingency.

Councilmember John Paulson said that he is glad to see the project go from a concept to a potential agreement.

“I think this is going to be an asset to the City Springs community and to the community at-large,” said Paulson. “I am glad it is taking the shape that it is taking and I look forward to the next steps.”

Robert Wittenstein, a member of the state commission and a former Dunwoody City Council member, said in the public comments that the Cultural Center would be a win for Sandy Springs.

City Councilmember Andy Bauman.

“The cultural arts center has the capacity to be ground zero for activity in this area of the state, and with your decision to put the Holocaust Commission and the Anne Frank exhibit here, you also get a bonus, and that is the state’s one and only Holocaust memorial,” Wittenstein said.

Several others involved in the commission also spoke in support, including Executive Director Sally Levine.

DeJulio made it clear he is not against a Holocaust exhibit as a whole, but emphasized that the city was formed to benefit residents and “not the special interests who want to use our tax dollars of our residents for our personal projects.”

“The only part of this that is the city’s function is the visitor center,” DeJulio said. “The others are private functions and should be developed privately.”

Bauman said that he understands the city will not be on the hook for Cultural Center spending, with the private tenants providing up-front or lease payments.

“…I do hear all the time, ‘Well, we didn’t form the city for this or we didn’t form this city for that,’ but I actually think this coexists with what you say about the genesis of this city and what a city does,” Bauman told DeJulio. “And I am very proud that our city is taking a lead to create quality of life through recreation, arts, culture, economic development, education…I think this project hits on all cylinders.”

–Hannah Greco