Fort McPherson-Tyler Perry deal not in the city’s best interest

The first of two columns about the pending sale of 330 acres at Fort McPherson to Tyler Perry Studios. Part one: Why we should not sell Fort McPherson to Tyler Perry.

By Maria Saporta

Before Fort McPherson and its 488 acres of beautiful rolling hills, historic houses and officers quarters, a golf course, a post office, several office buildings and a lake ever went on the market, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed gave movie mogul Tyler Perry a private tour.

Don’t move Tyler Perry Studios to Douglas County, the mayor pleaded with Perry in early 2014. Move it to Fort McPherson.

Since then, whenever there’s been an obstacle in negotiations between Tyler Perry and the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority (MILRA), Reed has let authority members know to give Perry what he wants.

Tyler Perry Kasim Reed

Tyler Perry and Kasim Reed last August upon announcing a preliminary agreement (Photo by Maria Saporta)

That is how Atlanta has ended up with what may become known as one of the worst transactions in the city’s history. Perry is getting 330 acres for $30 million (a bargain by any measure), and he is getting the fort’s prime real estate.

In return, the city has received precious little.

What guarantees exist that Perry will maintain the historic properties on the site? What allowances are being made for the federal requirements to house the homeless?

What assurances have Tyler Perry and the city given to the surrounding neighborhoods that the fort will not continue to seal off to the community, sucking even more life away from one of the most disadvantaged areas of Atlanta?

Has the city set a height restriction on how high a wall or fence Tyler Perry can build around his 330 acres to keep people out?

And what kind of job guarantees will Tyler Perry provide, and how many will be local residents?

In truth, the answers to most of these questions are still unknown.

But if we trace back through time, we can see a pattern of how Tyler Perry operates his business. That will clue us in on what may happen at Fort McPherson.

When Tyler Perry bought the Krog Street property in Inman Park, where he shot the first 100 episodes of House of Payne, he built out most of the facility without architectural plans, much less building permits.

A city building inspector came by and shut it down. Most of the property – the Atlanta Stove Works – was sealed off with police “Do Not Cross” tape.

When asked whether they should speak to community groups about Tyler Perry’s plans, studio executives were not interested.

Perry then moved his operations to Greenbriar Mall. Once again, there was shoddy construction with all sorts of problems – studios that were too small, spaces built out of concrete that became echo chambers and acoustic nightmares.

Ft. Mac housing

Fort McPherson has strikingly beautiful historic properties such as these housing quarters (Photo: MILRA website)

People familiar with Tyler Perry said that over time, he became obsessed with security. “He walls off everything he can,” one person said, adding that the fear is that Fort Mac will become a prison within a fort.

When Mayor Reed and Tyler Perry publicly talked about their deal at a MILRA board meeting last August, Perry pledged to meet with the community. Perry has yet to meet with neighborhood leaders.

MILRA officials keep talking about the economic development boost that Tyler Perry Studios will bring to Atlanta’s southside. But all one has to do is to take a look at the area around Greenbriar Mall. It is almost impossible to identify any economic stimulus the studios have brought to the area.

And then there’s the question of Tyler Perry’s movie and television empire.

In 2014, Lionsgate Films ended its distribution agreement with Tyler Perry, a business relationship that the two had shared since 2005. When there is no major distributor for Perry’s films, it is a lot harder for him to make money.

And when it comes to his televisions shows, TBS had been Tyler Perry’s biggest ally. But now that’s over, and Tyler Perry is working with Oprah Winfrey and her network  – OWN, a small cable network where the audience is much smaller. It could be an outlet for his movies and television shows, but the revenue potential is more challenging.

Those issues led one freelance entertainment writer – Shawn James – to ask in a column last year: “Is this the End of Tyler Perry?”

Here is what is disconcerting. The city is turning over two-thirds of Fort McPherson to one owner. That is a risky play because if that business falls on hard times, it will be another setback for Fort McPherson and the whole southside.

If MILRA and Mayor Reed were wise, they would look to see how the Integral Group is redeveloping the 165-acre Doraville GM plant.

It has hired a nationally-renowned master planner to develop a strategic plan. Six acres (not 330) is currently being built out as Third Rail Studios, a facility that will eventually be 270,000 square feet for film and television production with the first phase opening by the end of this year.

Incidentally, Integral, Cousins Properties and Forest City were part of a team that had originally been selected by MILRA to do a master plan for Fort McPherson, but the team members walked away when the Authority told them they also had to pay for MILRA’s administrative costs.

So as Atlanta dives headfirst into a deal with Tyler Perry, just remember, it didn’t have to begin or end this way.

Next week’s column will explore what approach MILRA and the City of Atlanta should have taken to bring new investment to Fort McPherson.

Note to Readers: Given how determined Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is to close the Fort McPherson sale with movie mogul Tyler Perry, I thought long and hard about whether I should even write another column on this unfortunate deal. The backlash from the mayor’s office can be intense when you disagree with him. Those attacks have stifled the kind of debate and discourse every city needs to make sure all the voices are heard, that a community consensus is reached and that the best decisions are made for Atlanta’s future.

With this administration, it appears as though only one person’s opinion matters – the mayor’s. And as a lifelong resident who cares deeply about our city’s future, I believe that collaborative leadership trumps raw power.

I can not be a silent bystander and watch one of the worst deals in Atlanta’s history proceed without protest.

To be honest, I gained the courage to write these two back-to-back Maria’s Metro columns by reading Tavis Smiley’s book: “Death of a King” – especially by reading a passage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Sunday sermon before he was assassinated.

It was at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 when he preached:

“Cowardice asks the question — is it safe? Expedience asks the question — is it politic? Vanity asks the question — is it popular? Conscience asks the question — is it right?”

My dear readers, please know this is my conscience speaking.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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