Developer John Williams remembered for his impact on the landscape of Cobb

From the Sept. 13, 2007 MDJ. John Williams, for whom the CEPAC theatre is named, addresses the crowd at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. MDJ Staff photo by Leigh Auerbach

The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Cumberland Community Improvement District and Glover Park. These and other landmarks and areas in the county may not exist the way residents know them today if not for John Williams, according to former Gov. Roy Barnes.

“If you ride through Cobb County, it is hard to not look upon something that John Williams had a hand in,” Barnes told the MDJ Monday just hours after Williams’ unexpected death. He was 75.

The longtime developer’s passing was announced by Preferred Apartment Communities, which Williams co-founded and served as its chairman and chief executive officer. He previously founded Post Properties in 1970, and when he resigned as its chairman in 2003, it had approximately 30,000 apartment units, according to a news release from Preferred Apartment Communities. Post Properties went on to be purchased in 2016 by Mid-America Apartment Communities Inc. for about $3.9 billion.

Over the course of his career, Williams directed and coordinated the development, construction and management of more than $15 billion in real estate developments, with more than a third of that focused on multifamily housing, according to Preferred Apartment Communities.

“When you write the history of Cobb from the mid-1970s to today, I think he stands out as one of the true transformational giants. He changed the multi-family industry, not just in Atlanta but really kind of led the direction of transforming multi-family, upscale apartment homes as opposed to kind of the way multifamily was seen before the rise of Post,” said Roger Tutterow, economics professor at Kennesaw State University and director of its Econometric Center. “We don’t talk about it a lot now, but a lot of the growth in Cobb in the 1980s and 90s were young professionals moving into Cobb and moving into apartment homes that Post Properties built. You can see it both in the commercial and residential side of the real estate market.”

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s career in the same industry led him to meet Williams decades ago.

“He and I started kind of together at the same time — I was opening some houses for Southern Company, Georgia Power Company, when he was working for them back in the late 1960s, and we got to know each other as friends then. He started Post Properties, and I went into Northside Realty, and as the two companies grew, we got to be better and better friends,” Isakson said.

One of Williams’ contributions to the industry, Isakson said, was changing the way people thought of apartments.

“His goal was to make people look at apartments as if they were their homes, not just a temporary place to stay. And he went to Holland and became the largest importer of Holland bulbs in the United States and started planting the tulips around all his apartment complexes — that’s why the logo for his company, Post Properties, at that time was a tulip,” Isakson said. “When I got out of college and rented an apartment … mud, gravel and nothing else (around it) — now they’ve got shrubs and flowers, because everyone wants them to make them look aesthetically good outside.

“That’s just the kind of guy John was — he didn’t settle for halfway, he went all the way,” he added.

SQUARE SURVIVES THANKS TO WILLIAMS

Isakson cited Williams’ hand in making a Marietta landmark visually pleasing as just one of his countless contributions to the county. He, along and former Marietta Mayor Bill Dunaway and former Cobb Commissioner Butch Thompson, said among the things Williams will be remembered for is his contribution to the renovation of Marietta Square’s Glover Park in the early 1980s.

“Things like that people didn’t see. People looked at John like he was another one of those get-rich developers, and that was not true. He was a quality-type developer,” Thompson said. “He was generous with his money that he had made, and he was a workaholic, for sure.”

Dunaway said Williams donated $500,000, which saved the park after the county had been ready to pave over it and turn it into a parking lot.

In an October email sent to the former mayor, Williams recalled that then-commission Chairman Ernest Barrett and other commissioners felt the Square “was ill-maintained and had far too many birds and was a hangout for undesirables.

“I indicated that having a Square like Glover Park was unusual and an incredibly favorable asset,” Williams wrote, adding that he was challenged by the incoming chairman of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce to come back with a plan for renovating the park.

He did, but also seeded the effort with his personal half-million-dollar donation, Williams wrote in his 2017 email to Thompson, with other donors following. Williams’ efforts on the Square led to his selection as the 1985 Cobb County Citizen of the Year, which was presented by the Marietta Daily Journal.

His company at the time, Post Properties, would go on to landscape and maintain the park until Post went public in 1993, Williams added — an expenditure that cost about $80,000 a year.

Ron Ransom, who served as Marietta’s Parks and Recreation director for nearly two decades from 1975 through the early 1990s, said that all told, Williams’ full donation likely totaled close to $1 million in in-kind and actual money spent, but all began with a pledge of just $50,000 made while Ransom’s department was wrapping up an event on the Square.

“Mr. Williams called me aside to talk about Glover Park. He said, ‘This park could be a showplace and how would you like $50,000 to do some upgrades?’ He said it would be an anonymous gift,” Ransom recalled, adding that he was summoned to the city manager’s office the next Monday, where Williams presented a full set of plans for the new park.

“Fearing for my life,” Ransom quipped, “I said, ‘It looks great but there’s no playground.’ Mr. Williams said he envisioned the park as a place for adults. I stuck my neck out further and said, ‘It is well-used by mothers who shop on the Square and let their kids play on that old playground equipment.’ John said to let him think about it, and the next week he came up with the replica of the General.”

Young visitors to Glover Park can still play on the imitation locomotive today.

SMYRNA SPRUCED UP

Cobb’s county seat wasn’t the only city that saw its downtown beautified with the help of Williams.

“John Williams behind the scenes was very instrumental on giving us advice,” recalled Max Bacon, who has served as Smyrna’s mayor since 1985. “Another area that he was familiar with was up in Virginia that did sort of a similar thing that we did in downtown Smyrna where (the city) purchased a majority of the property and built the city hall, and then everybody wanted to be in the downtown again. We actually flew up to Virginia, I guess in 1980-something, and went to this town and looked at it, came back the same day, and then from there, we decided what we were going to build.”

When Smyrna’s downtown area was finally redeveloped, Bacon said, Williams’ Post Properties provided landscaping around the fountain and community center for “five or 10 years,” Bacon said.

“He was the kind of guy that if he was going to build in your city and invest in your city, he was going to return 10 times what he was getting out of it, and he was always a part of our city,” Bacon said.

CUMBERLAND CONTRIBUTIONS

Former Cobb Chairman Earl Smith, who serves on the board of the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority, said one of the late developer’s biggest contributions to Cobb — and the Atlanta region at large — was his service as the authority’s first chairman.

The authority today owns and operates the Cobb Galleria Centre, which opened in 1994 and today hosts some of Cobb’s biggest annual events, and the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, which recently marked 10 years of operation.

Bacon says that out of his estimated 28 years of service on the authority, which continues today, Williams had likely served as chairman for 15 years.

“He’s the one that got everything going, cranked up,” Bacon said. “Smyrna may have been OK even if John wasn’t there, and the Galleria would’ve probably been there if John hadn’t been on it, but it would have been a different Galleria and it may have taken a bit longer. Because I know he was a (Georgia Tech) Yellow Jacket, but he was a bulldog on stuff, and once he got after something, he didn’t stop until it was done. And I give him all the credit for the work in Smyrna and the Galleria, because that was truly his aggressiveness and he kept pushing, pushing, pushing, and look at it today.”

According to Karen Caro, marketing manager for the Cobb Galleria Centre, Williams donated $10 million to CEPAC’s development, and its 2,800-seat main theater was named “The John A. Williams Theatre” in his honor. He later donated an additional $2 million for naming of the ballroom in honor of banker Kessel Stelling. There was no donation for the naming of the Galleria’s “John A. Williams Ballroom,” one of the largest such rooms in the south.

The Galleria and CEPAC created 1,550 jobs and generated approximately $161 million in overall economic impact for Cobb County and the state of Georgia in 2017, according to a recent economic impact study. The authority also owns SunTrust Park, which opened as the home of the Atlanta Braves in 2017.

Williams also served on the board of directors for the Atlanta Falcons, of which he was a minority owner.

Beyond his involvement with the authority that oversees the Cumberland attractions, Williams would go on to make several marks in that portion of the county, among them the creation of what would become the Cumberland Community Improvement District.

Tad Leithead, the CID’s former chairman now serving as its interim executive director, said the genesis of the organization stemmed from a trip to Dallas Williams took with several Cobb leaders, during which they learned of “business improvement districts.”

“That group made the decision that there needed to be a mechanism like the BIDs for Georgia,” Leithead said, adding that Williams returned and worked with Isakson and Barnes — then a state representative and state senator, respectively — to draft a statewide constitutional amendment to allow CIDs in Georgia. It passed in 1984, with the formation of the state’s first CID, then called the Cobb County Community Improvement District, beginning the next year. It was officially established May 1, 1988.

Nearly a decade later, it changed its name to the Cumberland CID following the formation of the Town Center CID in the mid-1990s.

“It speaks volumes about John, because you go on (these trips) and you see what other cities are doing, and you go back to business as usual. That wasn’t his style,” Leithead said. “He saw things there that he thought were worthwhile and could benefit particularly Cobb County, and he made it happen. … He would just decide that this was something that needed to be done, and he had the relationships and the connections and literally the power to make it happen, and people listened to him.”

BARNES: WILLIAMS WAS ‘ONE OF THE FINEST MEN I EVER KNEW’

Despite his name being attached to several high-dollar ventures in recent decades, Williams came from humble beginnings, according to Barnes, who has known him for close to 50 years.

“John was not born to wealth — he grew up in southwest Atlanta, worked as a co-op student because he couldn’t afford to pay the tuition to go to Georgia Tech, and he’d work for Georgia Power one quarter and went to school one quarter,” Barnes said. “He is completely and totally a self-made man.”

Williams would go on to earn a bachelor’s in industrial management from the institution, and would later be honored in the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Management Hall of Fame, as well as Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business Hall of Fame.

In addition to being a close personal friend, Barnes said he represented Williams in legal matters both personal and business.

“I knew him when he didn’t even have an office, and we would meet at the IHOP on Roswell Road to have breakfast, and we’d clear off the table and I’d have my legal pad and pull it out and find out what I was going to do. I represented John for many years,” Barnes said. “He’s just one of the finest men I ever knew.”

Williams is survived by his wife Nancy; son Jay and daughter in-law Mary; daughter Sarah Brook and soon-to-be son-in-law Paul Austin; son Parker; and grandsons Jack and Harrison, according to his obituary posted online by H.M. Patterson & Son-Arlington Chapel in Sandy Springs, which is handling arrangements.

His memorial service will be 2 p.m. Monday, April 23, at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, 3434 Roswell Road NW, Atlanta. It will be streamed live at peachtreechurch.org.

Prior to the memorial service, the family will have gathered for a private entombment at Arlington Memorial Park.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Piedmont Heart Institute or a charity of choice.

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