What is Dunwoody? Turns out that’s a trickier question than you might suppose.
“What is it now?” Bob Fiscella mused one sunny morning recently as we chatted at a table outside a coffee shop in Dunwoody village. “When we became a city, a lot of people thought we were a real-life Mayberry. A lot of people still believe that. But as we change demographically, I think people want to see it be a lot more vibrant. Especially young people.”
Fiscella’s new job requires him to consider how those various points of view fit together, if they do. He’s the new president of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association, the 51-year-old, 881-member group that promotes the city’s homeowners’ interests and claims to be “one of the most powerful associations of its kind in the United States.”
The DHA board takes positions on zoning and development issues and the organization sponsors special family-centered events such as Dunwoody’s Fourth of July Parade, which it claims is Georgia’s largest.
When considering the current role of the DHA, there’s a lot of history to take into account. Before Dunwoody became a city, the DHA functioned almost as an unofficial branch of government. Developers who wanted approval to build in Dunwoody or the surrounding area had to curry the group’s favor. The DHA had clout because of the votes it could command.
And the homeowners’ group had a lot to do with the creation of the city of Dunwoody itself, in part as a strategy to thwart development of apartment complexes in the area. The city and the association were so closely tied at the beginning that the head of the DHA was elected the city’s first mayor.
Now that the city’s been around a dozen years, things have changed, of course. To explain the DHA’s current role, Fiscella said simply, “In a nutshell, our role is to improve the quality of life in Dunwoody and keep real estate values up.”
Fiscella, who’s 61, came to his new post in a roundabout way. He’s a genial guy who sells real estate in and around Dunwoody these days, but his background is in TV sports.
He grew up in Texas, studied broadcasting at the University of Texas and spent about 17 years covering sports for CNN. After that, he worked for another five years for Fox Sports. Along the way, he says in his online bio, he interviewed sports figures such as Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning and Arnold Palmer. “Broadcasting was always my thing,” he said.
He ended up in Dunwoody after he married. At the time, he lived in Midtown and his wife lived in Roswell. “Dunwoody was the compromise,” he said.
Once he started a family, the odd working hours required of a working sports reporter took their toll and he got out. He started selling real estate, he said. “Why I chose real estate, I don’t know,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, there are a lot of nice houses in Dunwoody. That seems easy.’ But it’s a hell of a lot harder than it seems.”
After the city incorporated in 2008, Fiscella wanted to get more involved in his community, so he ran for City Council a couple of times, but never won a seat. He says now he’s just as happy that he didn’t. “Losing that race was a blessing in disguise because those first councilmembers had to put in a lot of time,” he said.
Looking ahead, Fiscella says he’s not planning any major changes, although he’d like to raise the group’s profile. He sees the job of the DHA as continuing to monitor zoning and land development in the area. Sitting at the Dunwoody Village coffee shop, he pointed out that the way the shopping center surrounding him was developed represented one of the DHA’s major past victories and that some proposals on how to revitalize the area could pit the homeowners against the city in the future.
But he also said the association also needs to keep watch on the city’s schools. Dunwoody needs another high school, he said, because Dunwoody High “once was a neighborhood school and now it’s a mega-school.”
“We do have to become a little more open about DeKalb County Schools. I think they are the biggest threat to keeping our property values up in Dunwoody,” he said. “How do we get our voice heard now with DeKalb County Schools? … I think we should.”
If Dunwoody had its own school system, as some community leaders have unsuccessfully proposed in the recent past, “our property values would skyrocket because it would be the best school district in the state,” Fiscella said.
“I think it’s still a pie-in-the-sky kind of dream,” he said, “but we have to push on DeKalb County schools whenever possible. I think we just need to keep our voice being heard. Can we exact any change? I don’t know. But we’ve at least got to try.”