The Dunwoody mayor and City Council have awarded $250,000 to the Dunwoody Nature Center and Dunwoody Preservation Trust as part of its annual Facilities Improvement Partnership Program (FIPP), but some council members raised questions about the funding process and the ongoing expansion of facilities at the Nature Center.
At the council’s Aug. 13 meeting, members voted 6-1 to award $82,000 to the Dunwoody Nature Center to buy and refurbish two shipping containers to transform into an “eco classroom.”
The council also voted to award the Dunwoody Preservation Trust $151,000 to renovate the guest house and expand parking at the Donaldson Bannister Farmhouse. An additional $17,000 will be used for contingency funding, bringing the total to $250,000.
Councilmember Lynn Deutsch cast the lone dissenting vote and has continued to question the process of awarding the grant money. She said more information is needed on finances from the nonprofits requesting taxpayer money. She also said she believes this process should be included in the overall capital expenditures budget process.
“Moving forward I think we need to look at how we do FIPP,” Deutsch said. “There is real value from a policy perspective in handling all [expenditures] at once.”
The FIPP process has been going on for several years and is a way the city tries to assist its nonprofit partners with their facilities. Deciding what nonprofit organization receives funding includes requiring nonprofits to submit details about the budgets and what public use the facilities will provide. This year the assistant city manager, accounting manager, and the parks department’s director and operations manager scored the requests based on the information provided. Those with the highest scores generally receive FIPP funds.
Last year, Deutsch asked the same questions about the FIPP process and city officials said the scoring system was tweaked. But she asked the council to again take up the issue at its annual retreat early next year.
Another area of concern for Deutsch as well as City Councilmember Terry Nall was the amount of building taking place at the Dunwoody Nature Center.
The Nature Center is located within the 35-acre city-owned Dunwoody Park. The new Austin Elementary School is currently under construction adjacent to the park.
Nall questioned the use of shipping containers to be used as classroom space for such events as Boy Scouts meetings and other group meetings. He said it was “ironic” that the city disapproves of the use of trailers on school property “and now we are putting trailers at the Nature Center.”
He also questioned the amount of development taking place at the Nature Center.
“My concerns are about the overdevelopment of limited acreage. We really need to have that conversation,” Nall said, noting that the application for the shipping container classrooms included fulfilling the Nature Center’s master plan.
“I hope we remember it is still a park,” Nall added.
The Nature Center is undertaking a $4.75 million capital campaign that will include the construction of a 7,000-square-foot building where the current parking lot is located. The new building will include exhibit space, classrooms and community meeting space and add programming.
Additional parking was created as part of the Austin Elementary School buildout in partnership with the DeKalb County School System, and a new North Woods Pavilion was recently completed as part of phase one of the master plan. Approximately $1 million has been raised so far of the $4.75 million, according to documents filed with the city.
Deutsch also questioned the new eco classroom, saying it was not part of the master plan.
“When I hear about the amount of building they want to do at the Nature Center, I am not happy about it,” she said. “We are losing control over that property.”
She said the Nature Center does “really good work” but questioned if residents understood its mission.
In an interview, Nature Center Executive Director Alan Mothner said Nall and Deutsch had misconceptions about what is going on at the Nature Center.
He said the eco classroom made from a reused shipping container is part of the Nature Center’s mission of increasing awareness about sustainability. While it is not included in the master plan, it is replacing an aging cabin that will be demolished that is part of the master plan.
He added the eco classroom is not a trailer as Nall suggested. Shipping containers are now being recycled and reused all over the country and world for housing, restaurants, offices, stores, studios and even retail centers. This reuse goes “hand in hand” with the mission of the Nature Center and its focus on sustainability, Mothner said.
He added the new eco classroom, to be purchased and refurbished by a company in Norcross, is only 450 square feet out of 35 acres.
“We are far from building skyscrapers,” Mothner said. “The Nature Center is not being overdeveloped.”