It’s a time of change in Roswell.
The new mayor, Lori Henry, is just the third new person to be elected to the post in 50 years — and the first female mayor in Roswell’s history. Residents also elected four new council members, and the other two are in their first term.
It’s a great opportunity for a fresh start, and that’s what Henry’s seeking. She has a vision of what she thinks Roswell should look like and the direction she wants the city to go in. But after 30 years with one mayor and 20 with the next, Henry said she doesn’t want to be hamstrung by what people in Roswell are used to.
“I would prefer not to hear, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’” she said. “We’ve got a clean slate. We’re going in new. Now’s the time to make change.”
She’s not the only one to say so, either.
“There was a lot of call for change in this election,” said Elaine DeNiro, archivist for the Roswell Historical Society and the city. “Everyone’s eager to move forward.”
DeNiro said it’s a “new era” in Roswell politics, and indeed, the feel of a good-ol’-boys network that had long dominated the city seems to be shifting.
Nancy Diamond, a member of council who left in December, said the pressure on Henry will be “enormous.”
“It’s a turning point in our region — the growth is here,” Diamond said. “All the easy things have happened. How will people live, where will they live? It’s a crucial time in our city.”
Roswell boomed over 50 years, going from a small town of 5,430 in 1970, shortly after Pug Mabry took office in 1967, to a mid-sized city of 94,598 in 2017, the last year of Jere Wood’s term, according to Census estimates. Development has been a perennial hotbed issue.
VIDEO: Previous coverage of the Roswell mayoral race
Henry would like slower growth. She doesn’t want any new apartments built in Roswell, though she’d be happy to redevelop existing complexes and put new ones in their place. She thinks the city needs to do a better job of respecting the historic downtown. She’d like to bring more Class A office space to the city, perhaps filled with medical offices. Low-rise, senior housing might be a good fit nearby, she said, though there is room for townhouses or condominiums closer to commercial corridors.
“We need to move forward with development, but we also need to do it in the right way,” Henry said. “Roswell is not a high-density urban environment. It’s a beautiful bedroom community.”
Any additional density, Henry said, needs to be in the right places — “not in our neighborhoods.”
Henry has fans in residents like Janet Russell, who said she appreciates that the mayor is thoughtful, a technician, who will work quietly to get things done in the city. Russell described Henry as a listener, and said she has “the skin of an armadillo” — useful for dealing with some of the backbiting that can come in local politics.
But others wish that the new mayor appeared to be more pro-business, and more willing to embrace development.
“She’s very anti-development and makes no bones about it,” said Doug Curling, the managing principal and New Kent Consulting. Curling has been involved in Positively Roswell, a citizen engagement group that focuses, in part, on economic development.
He said he’s concerned about workforce housing and transportation in Roswell, the latter of which Henry said she needs to get up to speed on. The decisions she and other leaders make will have an impact on the city well into the future. Fulton County mayors and other leaders are in the midst of discussing a transit expansion in Roswell and the rest of the county. Wood, the former mayor, was a strong voice of support for transit expansion, but Henry said she doesn’t yet know much about the county’s plan.
Ryan Pernice, owner of the downtown restaurants Table & Main and Osteria Mattone, said two mayors in 50 years isn’t good — he was ready for new leadership — but he isn’t sure that Henry will support projects he feels are necessary for Roswell’s future, like a downtown parking deck that he says would have a long-term impact on local businesses’ ability to attract patrons.
Other, neighboring cities are more welcoming, he said, and make it easier to start a business or attract customers. With businesses expanding in or decamping to Alpharetta or other nearby cities, Pernice is concerned that some residents’ tendency to fight growth will mean Roswell will stagnate. He thinks Henry’s time in office could have long-term implications for the city. Some leaders, in the past, have been too eager to say “no” to development, he said.
“Roswell is as a bit of a crossroads. We need to decide want we want to be when we grow up,” Pernice said. “We are pretty far behind.”
Pernice did say new ideas are essential, and he has high hopes for members of council.
Henry said she has plans to boost business for local shops and restaurants, including allowing open containers in some shopping areas to encourage patrons to get a drink and walk around.
Wood, the former mayor, said Henry will have to be persuasive to bring her agenda forward. The mayor in Roswell breaks ties, but does not normally get a vote, and the office “does not have near the power that people think it does” — though, “I never acknowledged that,” Wood said.
Diamond doesn’t think Henry’s election represents much of a philosophical change for the city, but said Henry will have to work hard to make regional connections that Wood had cultivated over the decades.
For her part, Henry said she’s excited about the challenge. The mayor helps make a city a community, she said, and she’s eager to keep the many people who came out to vote engaged in the city.
“What shapes the office of the mayor most is personality,” she said. “Jere Wood has a big personality and I think it influenced how people see the role. It will naturally change.”
Wood said Henry’s main role will be to be Roswell’s face, and to brag on its behalf. It’s a role the former councilwoman hasn’t played before, but one Wood said she’s capable of.
“She’s hardworking, intelligent and talented,” Wood said. “She clearly has the abilities to get things done.”
Henry, who was a member of council from 2001 to 2009 before being elected again in 2017, is the owner of H&B Promotional Products. She moved to Roswell as a young adult, after graduating from Ohio State University.
Her quiet, laid-back persona will be different from Wood’s brashness, said Jerry Orlans, a councilman who left office in December after 25 years. He said the shift for the city will be “strange and interesting” — but said he also remembered that there was some resistance to Wood’s sometimes-adversarial approach to council when he first took over the job.
“We had to get him to step back a little when he first got there,” Orlans said of Wood. “She is more quiet. She thinks things over.”
Sometimes, though, Henry moves quickly. One of her first orders of business in the city was to change the wallpaper in the mayor’s office. It was beige grasscloth, she said, at least 20 years old. The walls are now painted gray.
The update to the mayor’s office, Henry said, “was definitely long overdue.”
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