Sandy Springs plans for a Holocaust memorial continues to be controversial

Sandy Springs plans to finalize a $3 million rental agreement with the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust for a controversial location that will house a new Anne Frank exhibit and a memorial expected to draw visitors from around the state and southeast.

Last November, City Council approved the Heritage Building at 6110 Blue Stone Road as the new home for the commission and its upcoming exhibit activities. Councilwoman Jody Reichel, who cast the sole opposing vote, now wants the city to cancel that decision.

During a special-called City Council meeting Tuesday, Reichel questioned the use of taxpayer dollars to help upgrade the site and whether it makes “sound economic sense” for Sandy Springs to lease the property to the commission.

The property is owned by the Sandy Springs Public Facilities Authority. City Councilmembers makeup the authority, which is a vehicle for contractual relationships and leases with more than a one-year term.

A special-called meeting of the Public Facilities Authority will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to discuss the lease details and how to proceed.

The Commission on the Holocaust, a state agency that educates the public on the mass killing of Jews by Nazi Germany, has been planning to bring large rotating exhibits and events to a new space for four years. City Council’s approval of the Heritage Building, last year, came after six months of debate including residents who were for and against locations that were being considered.

Under terms of the lease agreement for the Heritage Building, the Commission would provide a letter of credit for the rental payments in the amount of at least $3 million for a 20-year lease.

On an annual basis one-twentieth of that amount will be taken out of the sum and given to the city as a rent payment, Commission Chairperson Chuck Berk said Thursday.

The existing building will have to be demolished, Berk said.

Sandy Springs estimates the cost of construction for a new 13,000-square-foot building would be nearly $6 million. The Commission would occupy 7,000-8,700-square-feet of space. Visit Sandy Springs tourism organization and Sandy Springs Police Bicycle Patrol would also be located in the building.

The Commission is raising funds for the exhibits and rental space through private donations. To date, approximately $3.8 million has been raised in funds and pledges, Berk said, adding that the exhibits will cost about $2.5 million.

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is helping the Commission create exhibits, including one that would reproduce the 540-square-foot space where Anne Frank and seven other Jewish people hid for 761 days during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Berk said.

A high-tech interactive exhibit created by the USC Shoah Foundation and titled “Dimension in Testimony” will allow visitors standing in front of a video screen to ask questions related to a Holocaust experience and a survivor will appear on the video with an answer.

“We have to agree that the Anne Frank (exhibit) represents an icon for self-determination, for religious freedom and for freedom of persecution,” said John Galambos, during public comment at last Tuesday’s meeting. “It will be a draw. If you do this correctly, you’re talking about 10s of thousands of people coming. It is a boon for restaurants and (other businesses).”

Galambos is the son of Sandy Springs’ first mayor, the late Eva Galambos, who pushed for bringing the former Anne Frank in the World exhibit to Sandy Springs. It was on display at Parkside Shopping Center from 2009-2020.

Eva Galambos fled Nazi Germany during World War II to avoid incarceration. Her son said that his late father John Galambos Sr., was held in the same concentration camp where Anne Frank died, Bergen-Belsen.

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

Reichel, who is Jewish, said she shares the passion that Eva Galambos had for Jewish education. In a Friday op-ed with the Sandy Springs Reporter, Reichel added that she doesn’t believe the city has done enough research to determine if redeveloping the Heritage Building for the planned project is responsible financially.

During last week’s meeting, Councilman John Paulson said the Commission project is not a real estate deal and the city has had similar projects that reap no financial benefit such as fire station properties and Hammond Park.

A veterans memorial park that will be constructed across from City Springs campus will cost the Sandy Springs an estimated $4.9 million.

“We make decisions all the time that has nonfinancial impacts and this is one of those,” Paulson said. “When the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust ...considered Sandy Springs, I was pleased.”