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City Government

City Manager Looks Back on Five Years of Accomplishments: Looking Ahead to Booming Future

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City Manager Brian Johnson.

Photos by George Hunter

From the Curiosity Lab to a new City Hall, City Manager Brian Johnson has steered Peachtree Corners through many big changes in his first five years on the job. Not that he’s taking credit for it.

“We have had some wins,” says Johnson, who started the job in September 2016. “But again, I want to stress the whole ‘we.’ I might be the CEO of the city, … and the mayor and the council are our board of directors, … but the ‘we’ is critical here. I can’t do it without mayor and council support. I can’t do it without my staff’s support.”

Surrounding Johnson, some of many military citations and awards for service.

Johnson said he surrounds himself with department heads who “I would like to think are smarter than me” and keeps them focused on city service. “We get in early, we leave late, [and] try to make this the best community we can be to live, work and play,” he said.

Mayor Mike Mason says he’s glad the city brought Johnson onto that team.

“Although Brian was not from the area and moved here shortly after he was hired, in many ways, he saw the city the same way I did from the start — and I’m a 30-plus-year resident who led the ‘Yes!’ campaign and became the first mayor,” said Mason. “That’s been a gift to have someone who shares the vision and then, most importantly, takes action to get things done.

I’m told by other mayors that this ‘sense of ownership’ is unique. He has a relentlessly positive, can-do attitude, and that is so appreciated by the council, citizens and staff.”

Managing a city

A city manager oversees the day-to-day operations of a municipality. Johnson got the taste for the unusual job in an even more unusual way. A Navy intelligence analyst in the 1990s, Johnson switched to the Army and became an infantry officer in the Iraq War. There he found himself as the officer in charge of restoring services to the Sadr City district of Baghdad after the successful U.S. invasion.

“It was pretty cool to see it come back to life,” said Johnson. “A city is only as good as the services it can provide. Years later, when I decided to retire… I realized I really enjoyed that kind of thing.”

Back home, he got a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Georgia and embarked on a city manager career. He started in the Savannah suburb of Garden City, then managed the city of Anniston, Alabama before coming to Peachtree Corners.

Among the professional attractions were the city’s roots in Technology Park and its history as the place where such tech as the modem and the color printer were invented. After all, every city aims to be known for something, Johnson says, and Peachtree Corners already was.

“It’s nice to have that thing that has already been created, to feed and care for it, to ensure it doesn’t die,” he said.

As city manager, Johnson has no typical day, aside from his commitment to being an extreme early riser who aims to be in the office around 5:30 a.m. And no wonder. He said a workday could include talking with Gwinnett County police about street racing, handling a neighborhood complaint about trash collection, working with a company looking to move or expand here, and dealing with a homeowner upset about a neighbor’s tree about to fall on their property. That’s not counting scheduled meetings.

“It could go anywhere on a particular day,” said Johnson. “You could encapsulate a lot of what I do as firefighting.” He says he comes in when the “fire’s a little too hot or too big for a staff member to handle it.”

Another important part of the job, he said, is shielding department heads and staff from the pressures of policy debates. “I keep them from being distracted from too much political interference, from too much resident interference,” he said.

Accomplishments, big and small

The mayor and council have tasked Johnson with carrying out several city-changing tasks. The establishment of Curiosity Lab, the “smart city” and autonomous vehicle test track, in 2019 was a big one that has been “an economic development magnet,” Johnson says.

There was the lack of a traditional downtown, tackled with the creation of Town Center alongside the Forum, which also celebrated a 2019 opening. A small and hard-to-access City Hall in rented space was replaced in 2017 with a move to a bigger building the city owns.

On the economic development front, Johnson and the administration played a role in Intuitive Surgical’s recently announced $600 million expansion of its campus in the city, one of the largest such projects in county history. On the smaller scale, he said the city helped to reduce Technology Park vacancies and bring in around 10,000 jobs.

“There are some things that don’t necessarily tie to a bricks-and-mortar accomplishment,” he added. “We have been successful in keeping the city’s millage rate to zero. We don’t have a property tax.”

“In some cases, the accomplishments are merely me keeping the trains running on time. Some are not particularly sexy, not particularly evident to the untrained eye,” Johnson said. Some of the achievements are more bureaucratic and diplomatic, like the 2018 reworking of the city charter to make it mesh with state law about so-called city-lite governments like Peachtree Corners, with limited services and no property tax. That move spooked some residents about possible government expansion, which has not happened.

Challenges now and in the future

As far as challenges in leading Peachtree Corners, Johnson says it faces many that bedevil all cities. There’s the “age-old one” of never having enough money to do all of the paving, parks and public safety on a wish list, and the occasional frictions with other cities or the “state trying to take away local control.”

In Peachtree Corners, there are the added challenges of paying for everything solely with business and sales taxes, and the political tensions that come with being a very young city whose opponents to the founding are still watching carefully, not in some centuries-distant past.

The historic COVID-19 pandemic was a massive challenge that Johnson says will continue to have lasting local impacts due to the ways it accelerated changes in work and retail, shifting them to virtual, remote and online versions. With more online shopping, the city has to consider the health of local stores. With less business travel, the city wants to make sure its hotels remain robust. With more remote work, the area is already seeing people moving here rather than living closer to Atlanta jobs.

That remote-work factor is just part of what Johnson says is the major challenge — and opportunity — of the future: coping with and harnessing the success of “explosive” growth in metro Atlanta overall and this piece of Gwinnett in particular.

“So we are having a very significant amount of pressure being placed on us for additional housing of all types,” he said. “So managing that growth and also ensuring that our current residents are not affected [are big challenges].” And then there’s the redevelopment of some existing areas that the city would like to spur, he added.

Another challenge of growth that Johnson says the city is handling well is to “make sure that everybody feels welcome” as the city becomes more racially and ethnically diverse. “We are now technically, as they say, a minority-majority city,” he said, adding that is “indicative of the fact this community is seen as an inviting community for all.”

Johnson is enthusiastic about the city’s future because it’s his future, too. He, his wife Cheri and their two children live here. “I’m invested as anyone,” he said. “I very much have a personal stake in how well this community does or does not perform, which, again, is pretty cool — pretty cool when we exceed our own expectations, not so cool when we miss the mark and I beat myself up.”

“It’s a true honor to be sitting at the table where decisions about the direction a community is going [are being made] — That’s a pretty solemn, important duty that I don’t take lightly,” Johnson said. “And I feel honored every day, I feel lucky every day, that we have opportunity to do that.

John Ruch is a journalist with SaportaReport and Buckhead.com in metro Atlanta. His freelance work has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post and the Seattle Times. In his spare time, he writes fantasy novels.

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City Government

Planning and Development is Changing in Peachtree Corners

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The most important thing this moratorium does is allow the city to consider what will work best for Peachtree Corners.
Peachtree Corners Mayor Mike Mason

From Peachtree Corners Mayor Mike Mason’s monthly column.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, the city noticed a development trend that focused on the importance of social interaction. It began seeing development applications for indoor pickleball, virtual racing, garden clubs, car clubs and other recreational uses.

When our city was established in 2012, it adopted Gwinnett County’s codes and ordinances to maintain consistency and these new social interaction-focused uses were not initially considered in the city’s current Comp Plan or zoning code.

Working from home is another market trend having a big impact on local office parks. This economic engine is driven by office parks such as Technology Park and there’s always been a priority placed on preserving office stock.

Even though the commercial office market is waning right now, that pendulum is still trying to figure out where it will settle in. Most of these new socially focused uses find the best home in an office setting.

Due to the increasing number of these applications and the evolving market trends, the city has imposed a six-month moratorium on projects in the Central Business District character area. The moratorium came into effect on May 3 and will end on November 3.

This halt will allow the city six months to pause rezoning applications, special use permits and variances applications for residential or mixed-use development. It will help the city maintain the status quo, stop new applications from coming in and allow for officials to consult with experts and delve deeper into the code and comprehensive plans.

The city plans to conduct extensive research, analysis and strategic planning during this period to help determine if any changes should be made to the comprehensive plan and zoning regulations.

For instance, it might be beneficial to designate downtown as a distinct character area separate from the central business district. Implementing new zoning regulations to transform it into an entertainment district or a unique downtown character area could be a viable option. Many cities have already adopted this type of zoning.

Office parks and businesses throughout the city provide a balance of jobs and residents that allow the city to be the second largest in the state with a zero-millage rate or no city property tax.

Therefore, as part of this process the city will research ways it can preserve, stabilize and enhance the economic engine through the activation of underutilized spaces within office parks.

This proactive approach will help maintain the job-to-resident balance that allows the zero-millage rate while positioning the city for success as the office market pendulum settles.

The most important thing this moratorium does is allow the city to consider what will work best for Peachtree Corners. Furthermore, it communicates to developers that the city requires a pause because current zoning regulations and comprehensive plan do not adequately address future goals.

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City Government

Peachtree Corners Welcomes New Community Development Director

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Shaun Adams // Photos by Tracey Rice

With community development director Diana Wheeler stepping down to pursue a consulting career, Peachtree Corners city leadership turned a challenge into an opportunity. 

In January, Shaun Adams was hired as the assistant city attorney to oversee compliance for land use and economic development-related matters and help with legal issues. 

His background in public and private sector development made him the ideal replacement.

As luck would have it, Adams moved to Georgia in 2005, selling real estate while attending law school. 

“I actually started working down at the capital a lot, lobbying on various policies right out of law school,” he said. “I was the legal counsel for the Senate Judiciary, and that exposed me to ACCG, which is the State County Association, which represents all staff and elected officials for counties across the state.”

With the motto, Advancing Georgia’s Counties, ACCG helps with the policy aspect of things like training and education.

“While I was a lobbyist for them, I focused on economic development, infrastructure-related issues and whatever policies went into place,” Adams said. “We also went around the state and trained our commissioners and their staff on some of those policies and put their new processes in place.”

Local government possibilities 

“After a handful of years, I got lured away into the private sector,” he said.

Working on land use and government relations matters from the other side of the table, Adams represented developers and investors.

“Sometimes [investors would] come to me with a property that they bought, and they’d say, ‘Hey, we bought this on investment. We’d like to see how we can make the highest and best use of it. Help us create a vision,’” he said. “So, I helped put a team together to determine what we thought could go on the site based off of local government zoning.”

His job entailed working with architects and engineers to design the site and help the client take it to market. Ultimately, the contract purchaser would come in and seek needed entitlements.

“I would help with that,” Adams said. “Those were the fun ones because you got to start on the ground.”

Adams got to know many different local government jurisdictions and worked extensively around metro Atlanta on various matters. On a busy week, he may work with five different jurisdictions across the state.

As a family man with a wife and two sons, he began looking for something that would keep him closer to home.

A perfect fit

City Manager Brian Johnson says it was serendipitous that Adams was looking for a position at a time when the city needed someone like him.

“It’s actually a hard position to fill, and I just happened to catch him,” said Johnson. “We were familiar with each other because he’s represented a number of clients coming before the city.”

Johnson said that Adams was legal counsel for some of the most significant developments in the last few years: North American Properties purchasing and revitalizing The Forum, housing development Waterside, and Intuitive Surgical moving its headquarters from the West Coast.

“He was on the other side of the table as we worked together to make these projects ultimately better for the city and better than they were upon their initial submittal,” Johnson said. 

“And I knew then that he was a really knowledgeable guy that really knows how to deal with people. He’s a problem solver. He’s always looking for ways to figure out how to resolve conflict and navigate minefields as it relates to land use and all the laws and zoning that apply to it,” he added.

Changes to the job

Although Wheeler is no longer a staffer, she’s still doing work for the city. 

With Adams’ legal background, the events planning team will be transitioning out from under community development.

“By taking that off my plate, it’ll allow me to do more with the legal side of things that the position didn’t do previously,” he said. 

There will also be a shift with code enforcement duties moving under Chief Marshal Edward Restrepo.

“I moved code enforcement underneath the city marshal’s office because code enforcement and law enforcement are almost like fraternal twins — they both do very similar things,” said Johnson. “Each of them is enforcing a different level of law. Code enforcement is municipal code, and law enforcement is state code, but they work hand in hand.”

The events planning through the end of the year has already been moved from the community development director’s department. As a consultant, Wheeler will work with other contractors to manage the happenings at the Town Center. Director of Communications Louis Svehla has already moved into managing premier events, Johnson said adding that the city may use more consultants in the future under Svehla’s management.

“He has really shown his ability to manage special events very adeptly. He really showed me that skill set when we had last year’s Criterium bike race,” said Johnson. “I decided to take advantage of some opportunities, including our partnership with Audi, which we were going to announce to the whole vulnerable road user thing.”

With only three months to prepare, Svehla pulled off the event without a hitch. 

“He did an outstanding job and so he is capable of taking the management of our community events,  our concerts and stuff,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the city is still utilizing consultants for some aspects of special events, but if consultant fees become more expensive than hiring someone full-time to assist Svehla, he’ll make that call.

“All those moves have happened, and I’ll sum it up by just saying that I’m just playing to the strengths of these people and utilizing a great team that I have, and it’s working out really well,” Johnson said.

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City Government

City’s First Employee Steps Down

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At a City Council meeting on April 23, Diana Wheeler was recognized for more than 12 years of dedicated service to the city.
Diana Wheeler on stage at Town Center // Photos by Tracey Rice

Diana Wheeler starts her own consulting business

When a city is established, there’s a lot to do to get it going. One of the most important decisions is hiring effective staff. Diana Wheeler was one of those qualified employees who helped turn Peachtree Corners into the community it is today. She’s also credited with being the city’s first hire.

“I worked in Alpharetta for about 20 years as a community development director, and I decided that it was time to try something new and different, something I hadn’t done before. I was going to start up my own consulting business,” said Wheeler.

She was only a few days into her new career when the city of Peachtree Corners called.

“They said, ‘Hey, we’d like you to come and help us out. We’re starting up a new city, and we don’t really have any planners. We need a community development department,” said Wheeler.

So, she went back into city government work and put off starting her business.

Years of service

“I was the only employee for a while,” she said. “There were a lot of interesting times, and there were opportunities I’ve never had before, like setting up all of their programs and systems at the beginning.”

At a City Council meeting on April 23, Wheeler was recognized for more than 12 years of dedicated service to the city.

“A lot of things were accomplished, and after 12 years, I thought, well, you know, I still want that one last sort of professional challenge that I hadn’t ever done before, which was to go out on my own and take advantage of the connections that I’ve made over the years and work on projects that were of interest to me,” she said.

She let the city leadership know that it was time for that change and that she’d be making that change at the end of April.

“Diana’s daily presence was profoundly valued by her colleagues, who benefitted from her expertise, leadership, and perhaps most importantly, her composure in the face of the numerous challenges that the Peachtree Corners city government has encountered during her tenure,” read a statement from the city.

Don’t call it a retirement

As the community development director, Wheeler wore a lot of hats, metaphorically speaking.

“When I was community development director, I had four divisions: the building department, which issues permits and performs inspections; code enforcement, which basically enforces the city’s regulations in commercial and residential areas; planning and zoning, which does all the public hearings and all the zoning research work, and when we added the Town Center, we added special events,” she said. “It’s just a lot of different things. And the city has a very limited number of employees. So, everybody does multiple tasks.”

But she hasn’t entirely left the city. Through the end of the year, she’ll be coordinating the special events at the Town Center.

“We’ve got an incredible lineup. We have all sorts of really cool concerts …  and we’re also introducing a night market, which is like a farmer’s market,” she said.

The market will take place on the second Saturday of the month and will have about 14 different vendors selling produce, homemade products, and other items.

“We’re going to have a talent competition this year,” she said. “It’s called Peachtree Corners Has Talent, and we’re asking people to submit YouTube videos, and there are prizes for winners.”

Additionally, there’s a children’s festival and one for the canines in the new dog park.

“On December 4, we’re going to have the huge holiday glow event, which is our big holiday gala at the town center with a concert and Santa and all sorts of stuff for kids to do and a sing-along and lots of free hot chocolate and cookies and things like that,” she said.

Wheeler is unsure if she’ll continue working as a consultant with the city beyond December, but she’s excited about her next chapter. Her consulting business is focused on special projects.

A new journey as a consultant

“In communities where they have a limited staff but would like to take on a project, for example, the city of Jasper and the city of Milton have two different areas where they have projects that they would like to take on, but they don’t have the staff resources,” she said.

That’s where she’ll come in.

“They hire people sort of as a side project to work just on that project. And those are the sort of things that I would do,” she said. “I get to focus on a specific project and don’t deal with the day-to-day things.”

Wheeler said she likes that she gets to choose what she wants to work on and use her skills and experience to the fullest.

Highlights of Wheeler’s career with the city of Peachtree Corners:

  • She laid the groundwork for the establishment of Peachtree Corners’ inaugural City Hall.
  • She was instrumental in the development of the Holcomb Bridge Corridor Urban Redevelopment Plan, Livable Centers Initiative, Innovation Hub Master Plan, Winters Chapel Road Corridor Study and conceptual planning for the Multi-Use Trail network.
  • She established and nurtured the Arts Council, created the Arts & Culture Master Plan, and promoted other public art initiatives, bringing the residents enriching cultural experiences, artistic expression and a sense of community pride.
  • She played a pivotal role in the establishment and ongoing support of the Peachtree Corners Planning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, Downtown Development Authority, Redevelopment Authority, Arts Council, and Green Committee.
  • She played a crucial role in securing the city’s Green Community Certification and its Tree City USA recognition.
  • She spearheaded the implementation of the city’s initial zoning laws and led the Code Enforcement, Building and Permitting and Planning and Zoning Departments.
  • She pioneered the city’s first Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
  • She played a key role in launching Special Service Districts, contributing significantly to their initiation and success.
  • She Diana guided Town Green and Town Center initiatives.
  • She organized and managed Peachtree Corners’ special events.

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