Sandy Springs City Council members expressed skepticism about a joint Dunwoody-Sandy Springs economic development strategy, saying that it may be duplicating existing efforts in the Metro Atlanta area.
The discussion came during a presentation by Economic Development Manager Caroline Davis and City Manager Eden Freeman on the Perimeter Cities Entrepreneurship & Innovation Strategic Plan initiative at the Jan. 17 Sandy Springs City Council work session.
“The overall purpose of this strategic plan is to identify programs that over time will nurture and grow the entrepreneurial base in Sandy Springs and the Perimeter and hopefully work with our corporate community to do so,” Davis said.
Dunwoody initiated Perimeter economic development plan
The Dunwoody City Council had discussed the program and its potential benefits to its economic growth at a meeting last August. The council had earlier appropriated $250,000 to support the development of a strategic plan and early implementation using American Rescue Plan funding.
At the meeting, Dunwoody Economic Director Michael Starling said the city’s Development Authority and the Economic Recovery Advisory Committee had identified entrepreneurship as its top priority for the past few years, seeing it as a gateway to economic recovery after the pandemic.
“We realized that we not only needed to focus on programs, but we also needed to focus on the whole ecosystem and characteristics of what communities who are really successful at entrepreneurship focus on,” Starling said. “And a lot of it doesn’t have to do with training or mentoring – it’s about placemaking.”
Dunwoody engaged Boyette Strategic Advisors to identify goals to help foster a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. Since that presentation, Starling said it became clear that the two cities “share a common vision of focusing more resources on supporting entrepreneurs,” and offered Sandy Springs the opportunity to partner on the strategy.
Dunwoody staff members are now determining next steps for the initiative, Starling said, and will present their ideas at a future council meeting
“Many technology projects have located in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs in the past few years, as I’m sure you’re aware, this obviously creates an opportunity for Dunwoody and Sandy Springs to focus on these innovation technology entrepreneurs even more,” Boyette Chief Operating Office Tracy Sharp told Sandy Springs City Council on Jan. 17.
She said the strategy would be to develop a joint thriving entrepreneurial/innovation ecosystem. Six goals were identified:
- Develop a support program for innovation/technology entrepreneurs.
- Attract or develop an accelerator facility.
- Plan for an innovation/tech district to support startups over time.
- Increase access to angel and venture capital.
- Develop joint marketing efforts around “The Perimeter” and entrepreneurial efforts.
- Develop a support program for other small business entrepreneurs, including underserved businesses.
Sandy Springs City Council questions plans
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul asked if staff took into consideration the bandwidth and resources both cities have to execute the strategy.
Economic development staff would take the lead, but other staff and corporate partners would be engaged, Davis said.
She said a draft of the plan would be submitted on Feb. 7, but would not include funding requests. Those would come through the normal budget cycle, with the strategy implemented in stages over several years.
Councilmember Jody Reichel said the accelerator plan sounds similar to Atlanta Tech Village. She asked if the area had room for another accelerator – and the finances to fund it.
Freeman said the Tech Alpharetta model was considered a good example for the Dunwoody/Sandy Springs initiative. The Alpharetta city government started that initiative and still financially supports it. For the Dunwoody/Sandy Springs initiative, corporate partners would be sought.
Councilmember Melissa Mular asked if they had spoken to any venture capital firms to get their thoughts on the proposal.
Davis said staff had not made formal presentations, but she did speak with a venture capital firm more than a year ago that was interested in the affluent Sandy Springs market because of residents’ financial ability to participate in venture and angel capital. They planned to make contact after getting direction from City Council.
“The fact that you haven’t spoken to any venture capitalists out there, you know, is a little bit concerning, because for this plan to work you’re going to have to have these pools of money,” Councilmember Tibby DeJulio said.
Councilmember John Paulson said the accelerator is something that the chamber of commerce should be either initiating or partnering with other entities, rather than having Dunwoody and Sandy Springs telling businesses what to do.
Davis said the Dunwoody and Sandy Springs chambers were listed as partners in the implementation plan.
“If we can kickstart something, then maybe that’s worthwhile,” Paulson said.
Paul said in his experience, including time spent on the state Economic Development board, a lot of small companies start locally, but move away as they grow. That creates wealth in other communities instead.
Davis said that scenario is hard to prevent, with the only way being to ensure that the startups stay in Sandy Springs or metro Atlanta if the angel and venture capital comes from local sources.
“We can’t be drilling dry holes with taxpayer dollars, so you’ve got to give me a real solid plan that’s going to answer where everybody else has failed,” Paul said.