By The Wilbert Group
We spoke with Calloway about his home in East Point, his path to local government and his involvement with ULI’s UrbanPlan for Public Officials.
He may not wear a cape or cool costume, but Thomas Calloway is a modern-day superhero for Atlanta’s East Point community.
By day, the small business owner does residential construction and interior remodels. On nights and weekends, Calloway shifts focus to help the greater good as Councilmember for Ward B.
“Being an elected official is part-time pay with full-time responsibility,” Calloway said about juggling the two roles.
And as the comic books say, great responsibility and great power go hand in hand. Since being elected into his position by local residents, Calloway has helped East Point take great strides towards stabilizing the city through advocating for safe, viable neighborhoods, efficient government services and smart economic growth.
Simply put, Calloway believes East Point doesn’t only have a lot to offer, but that it continues to evolve. The same could be said for Calloway and his career.
Friendly Neighborhood Councilmember
While Calloway didn’t set out to work in local government — or construction, for that matter — the move was kismet for this East Point native. Although he grew up in Atlanta’s northern suburbs and studied chemical engineering at Georgia Tech, the opportunity to buy a house brought Calloway home in 2007.
After spending much of his 20s working as an equity trader for a thousand-member brokerage firm, Calloway was burnt out and looking for a career change. “I quit my job to take a gap year before I turned 30,” he said. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in an office building my whole life. I was trying to figure things out.”
His plan was to spend the year fixing up his recently purchased home. Soon, his new neighbors took notice and asked Calloway if he could help them with some work on their houses, too.
“Before I knew it, I was learning the construction business and doing interior remodels,” he said.
Over time, his small business, Atlanta Custom Tile and Construction, grew into his full-time gig. As he was spending a lot of time in other peoples’ houses, his personal investment in the community grew as well.
“I often joke that the two happiest days when someone is getting work done on their house is the day I show up and the day I leave,” Calloway said. “It is deeply personal work when I’m in others’ homes. You get folded into their daily routine, for better or worse.”
At the time, there was a 23% vacancy in the East Point neighborhood — despite its close proximity to Atlanta’s growing metropolis — and there were a lot of issues related to people walking away from their homes. Attendance at the neighborhood association meetings had dwindled to about five people and the group was in need of a president. Calloway decided to step up and serve. He had been bit by the local government bug.
“I took the role to make my neighborhood better, however I realized there was a lot of disconnect between what the city government was doing and what individuals really needed,” he said. “At this point in our city, the environment was really contentious.”
For the local 2013 election, Calloway became more involved as an advocate for close friends who were running for mayor and a city council seat.
“That year, every single incumbent was voted out,” he said. “The new leaders were people who shared my ideals and who I thought had a good, clear vision for our city.”
Then in 2015, the Councilmember seat in Calloway’s district opened up for election and he decided to run. It was a five-way race, but Calloway won with 52% of the vote.
“I think the overwhelming response from voters was a direct result of my prior involvement on the policy side and advocating for positive changes in the community for several years,” he said. “People had a chance to get to know me on a personal level and know what I stood for before I asked for the honor to represent them as a decision maker.”
In some ways, Calloway may be braver than fictional superheroes in comic books because he doesn’t wear a mask or hide his identity. He is accountable to people he sees every day.
With help from Calloway’s leadership, East Point has become financially stable and seen great progress in infrastructure while staying focused on the community, inclusion and intentional development.
“We are at a transition point and are able to deliver many of the things that people have waited a long time for,” he said. “Now we are actually tackling some new challenges head on when it comes to affordable housing, gentrification and equity.”
By applying his financial background, Calloway said he is proud of turning around the city of 35,000 people and 500 employees with a $150-million a year budget.
“When I came on board, we were borrowing money in January against taxes in December and were at about 50% funded on our pension obligations,” he said. “We didn’t even have a place for our city government. We were renting space for our offices to run the city out of.”
Fast forward four years, East Point has a credit rating of AA, one level below AAA rated bonds.
“Our pension is funded at 96% and we were the top-performing pension in the state of Georgia last year,” Calloway said. “We have a new 35,000-square-foot government facility that is energy efficient and a beautiful splash pad for kids. We also just finished our first streetscape project from a Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) grant from 2001.”
Now that the grant money has been spent, Calloway can look ahead to East Point’s next GDOT grant application — several million dollars of improvements for the downtown, widening the sidewalks, beautification projects, and installing pedestrian traffic signals near a MARTA station.
“We just purchased the 8 acres in the heart of our downtown and are looking to do a roughly $100 million public-private partnership, which will be mixed-use, mixed-income and transit-oriented,” he said. “Now that we have site control, we as a community can decide what goes there.”
Another project in the works includes bringing a historic, 1930s-era theatre back online in the next year or so, as well as remodeling the historic City Hall.
The latter has recently hosted actors portraying different breeds of heroes as a filming location for the hit Netflix show “Stranger Things” as well as part of Clint Eastwood’s film “Richard Jewell.”
Calloway doesn’t stop there. He is also hard at work on anti-discrimination legislation to make gender identity and sexual orientation a protected class in East Point.
“It can be very easy for the immediate to drown out the important,” he said about policy making. “Once we get to the table, we can’t forget what we want to do while we are there.”
The Power of ULI
Calloway credits much of his success through navigating the policy-making process to his continued education with Urban Land Institute (ULI).
He was first introduced to ULI while attending the National League of Cities (NLC) conference in 2016 in Washington, D.C., where he participated in ULI’s UrbanPlan for Public Officials. The full-day workshop is designed to educate local decision makers about the fundamental forces that shape and affect the built environment, as well as the important leadership roles that elected and appointed officials play in the real estate development process.
During the session, Calloway had a light-bulb moment. He and his team came up with a unique design and had fun along the way. “As someone who had almost no background in public policy, it was very eye-opening,” he said. “I realized just how much I was going to love being a public official.”
Calloway also made a connection with — and left an impression on — Sophie Lambert, vice president of UrbanPlan. A year later when ULI Atlanta received a grant to teach the UrbanPlan for Public Officials curriculum to a local audience, Calloway was called to help facilitate it.
“East Point hosted the course, I helped to get participants involved and I had a blast doing the class for the second time,” he said.
The experience inspired Calloway to join ULI Atlanta as a member on behalf of the city of East Point. He has also participated in ULI Atlanta’s Center for Leadership.
“For me, the Urban Plan for Public Officials program has been my favorite aspect of ULI,” said Calloway. “It’s also been the most impactful for me because it’s active learning rather than sitting in a classroom. Using the Socratic method, you’re figuring things out for yourself and there’s a hands-on opportunity to drive those ideals home. I truly believe in the power of UrbanPlan.”
Beyond the Call of Duty
Calloway continues to volunteer with ULI to help facilitate the class for different audiences. Recently, East Point invited all their boards and commissioners to take the class in hopes they can have the same “a-ha” moment Calloway did.
“This is a really good experience for local leaders to consider the issues that come before them in a more critical and analytical way,” he added.
Calloway also recently attended an instructor training through ULI so he will be able to bring UrbanPlan to even more audiences throughout metro Atlanta.
“As ULI is looking to expand the offerings of the program, I’m looking for ways to become more involved to bring the program to more people and places in Atlanta and beyond,” he said. “Time is always a challenge, so being able to meet people where they are is critical for introducing more people to these important concepts.”
A self-proclaimed open book, Calloway says there’s not much else about him that those who already know him would be surprised to learn.
When he’s not at home in East Point with his wife and their cat, Mr. Widdle Winkins, Calloway likes to unplug by spending time in nature. As a long-distance hiker, Calloway has recently hiked a significant portion of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Virginia.
Another “late in life” hobby, Calloway has also become a novice scuba diver, which he says has been a great bonding experience with his wife.
“We have been scuba diving for a couple years and that’s where we focus our travel together,” he said. “Being with your scuba buddy is very important, both to enjoy things together but also to look out for each other underwater.”
They are currently planning their next trip to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras.
Even superheroes need some rest and relaxation every once in a while.