By Maria Saporta
U.S. District Judge Richard Story’s ruling to dismiss the case that Ubiquitous Entertainment Studios had filed against the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority (MILRA) and Tyler Perry Studios is not dissuading Ubiquitous’ executives from their challenge.
In fact, Dan Meachum, the founder and CEO of Ubiquitous who is also an attorney, said he was “ecstatic” with Judge Story’s ruling because it left the door open for his company to continue to argue its case.
“Obviously we are going to re-file our case,” Meachum said. “The judge gave us a roadmap of how to proceed.”
In his ruling, Story was clear to say that he was not ruling on the merits of the case. Instead, he said it was premature for him to issue a judgment because the Fort McPherson property had not yet changed hands from the U.S. Army to MILRA or to Tyler Perry Studios.
Fort McPherson, a former Army base of 488 acres has been closed for several years as MILRA has been working on master plans for the property. In June of this year, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed met with the MILRA board to let them know that movie mogul Tyler Perry was interested in buy most, if not all, of the base for a studio complex.
MILRA has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Tyler Perry Studios to sell 330 acres of the base for $30 million – roughly the same amount of money that MILRA will have to pay the U.S. Army for the property over the next several years.
In its lawsuit, however, Ubiquitous said that it had been working on plans for a movie studio complex on 80 acres of Fort McPherson for nearly three years,. But earlier this year, the MILRA staff told Ubiquitous that it could not negotiate to sell the land until it had bought the land from the Department of Defense. At that time, it would invite interested buyers to bid on the property.
When Ubiquitous found out that Tyler Perry unilaterally negotiated a deal with MILRA and Mayor Reed without going through a bidding process or through a community engagement process, it filed its federal lawsuits.
MILRA and Tyler Perry Studios then filed counter motions to have the Ubiquitous lawsuits dismissed by saying there arguments had no merit.
But Judge Story stopped short of such a ruling.
“Tyler Perry and MILRA have not entered into a contract to sell Fort McPherson, so at this point the Court could only issue an impermissible advisory opinion as to the legality of MILRA’s actions,” Story wrote in his ruling that was released on Tuesday.
“Consequently, this issue is not fit for judicial determination. Moreover, withholding consideration will not impose hardship on the parties because whether and when MILRA and Tyler Perry will close a deal is speculative at this point,” Story continued.
“In the event they do, and Plaintiff still believes Defendants violated their rights, they will be able to seek relief at that time. In sum, the issues in this case are not sufficiently concrete for judicial review, and thus the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this action.”
At the last MILRA board meeting, executives said they were scheduled to close on the two sales (purchasing the base from the Army and selling 330 acres to Perry) simultaneously in mid-October.”
But when they appeared in court on Friday, Sept. 26, the attorneys for MILRA and Perry said the closing of their respective Fort McPherson transactions likely wouldn’t be scheduled before early next year.
“The judge did not say our claims do not have any merit,” Meachum said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. “I’m ecstatic now that I know I’m in a better position than when we started.”
Although Ubiquitous is not a household name like Tyler Perry Studios, Oscar-winning actor and director Denzel Washington serves on its board. Meachum also has said that Ubiquitous has plans to put a training and education facility for the movie industry as part of its complex at Fort McPherson.
“We are in this fight to the end,” Meachum said. “We are not going quietly into the good night. We are not going to look for another site. We have spent three years on this site, and we still think we have a solid case. We actually are more convinced about it now after having had a federal judge view it.”
Meanwhile, MILRA released more information about its negotiations with Tyler Perry than it has up to now.
After repeated requests to be more transparent about its negotiations with Perry, MILRA released its MOU earlier this week, even though large sections were blacked out – apparently because of the ongoing real estate negotiations and the lawsuit.
Brian Hooker, the relatively new executive director of MILRA, sent out an email saying that “Tyler Perry Studios’ commitment to develop and operate a film studio on part of the Fort McPhereson property provides an historic opportunity to redevelop 330 acres in Southwest Atlanta.”
At the same time, MILRA said it still have 144 acres along Lee Street and Campbellton Road available for development.
MILRA said the benefits of the deal were as follows:
- It would provide the funds needed to acquire the former Army base without having to use local taxpayer funds;
- The film studio would create hundreds of permanent jobs and thousands of temporary producton jobs;
- And the redevelopment of remaining 144 acres would remain under public control (as opposed to the 330 acres owned by Tyler Perry) that could be developed in line with the former master plan, it could promote economic development and it could support the homeless.
MILRA said the MOU anticipates a 60-day timeline for the board to execute the agreement with Tyler Perry Studios. MILRA has not yet released detailed maps of what property that Tyler Perry would buy and what portion would remain as green space.
Not everyone is satisfied with the flow of information.
State Sen. Vincent Fort issued the following statement on Tuesday:
The McPherson Authority continues to do its business in secrecy. Releasing one redacted document out of several requested in my Freedom of Information request is not transparency; it is stonewalling.
If the secret, backroom Fort McPherson/Tyler Perry deal is such a good idea why don’t they release more documentation? For example, they say the Perry deal will produce 8,000 jobs. If so, let us see the documentation; let us see what modeling has been done to come up with those numbers; and let us know how many jobs for people in the community have been produced by Perry’s studio located in the Greenbriar neighborhood. MILRA wants the community to trust them until after the deal is done.
What do they have to hide?
The released document does show that there are no community benefits of the sort advocated by neighborhood leaders for the last eight years. For example, there are no provisions for community people to be given priority for jobs.
It is apparent that the reason Perry has gotten this deal is that he is a friend of Mayor Reed and gave Governor Deal a huge contribution.