A new screenplay for Fort McPherson would have happier ending for Atlanta

Update: Tyler Perry Studios deal advances

By Maria Saporta

All is not lost – actually quite the opposite is true.

If the Tyler Perry-Fort McPherson deal really is falling apart, we have a wonderful “do-over” opportunity to get it right.

The 488-acre Fort McPherson property – a locked treasure chest overflowing with possibilities – can and should be the catalyst to the renaissance of the southern side of Atlanta.

As the economic bridge along between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and bookended by MARTA, Fort McPherson can send off ripples of rebirth and redevelopment to communities that have been hungry for new investment for decades.

But if filmmaker Tyler Perry had been successful in acquiring 331 acres of the 488-acre now-closed Army base for $30 million (a deal of the century), the opportunity for economic growth in the surrounding communities likely would have been locked away for decades to come.

Although plans were never unveiled to the community (not a good sign), Perry said he wanted to turn his property into a movie studio campus (encompassing the prime pieces of land, buildings and historic structures on the base) – most likely enclosed with a fence – off limits to the general public – recreating a fort within a fort.

The community deserves better. Atlanta deserves better. Georgia deserves better.

Not surprisingly, secrecy continues to surround the status of talks between the McPherson Implementing Redevelopment Authority (MILRA) and Tyler Perry.

All sorts of speculation exists including:

* Perry is making new demands for control of the property – even on the land he wouldn’t own;

* the deal is taking longer than Perry wanted and he’s ready to start building on his land in Douglas County;

* a federal lawsuit that would be triggered once the land was sold – causing further delays at the very least;

* the possibility that Perry is over-extended financially because he’s been buying so much property; or

* that Perry floated the news that he’s walking away from the deal as a negotiating ploy to get the city and MILRA to give him what he wants.

But if the Tyler Perry deal is really dead, let’s not despair. It would be a blessing – not even in disguise.

For starters, MILRA could revive its agreement with Gov. Nathan Deal and the state of Georgia to move the Georgia Police Academy to the Army’s state-of-the-art communications command center that sits on 20 acres of land.

The state had offered MILRA nearly $10 million, and then Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had talked the governor into withdrawing the state’s offer because Perry wanted that building as part of his deal.

If the Tyler deal fell apart, however, the governor let it be known he would be prepared to resubmit his offer.

If MILRA had nearly $10 million in the bank, it could make its first down payment to the U.S. Army to buy the base (during the Perry negotiations that cost was going to be a total of $26 million over as many as four or five years and the first down payment was less than half that amount).

MILRA likely would be able to negotiate an agreement with the U.S. Army to pay $8 million as a down payment and then allocate the rest for operations and base maintenance.

Once it had ownership of the base, MILRA actually could entertain proposals out in the open and in good faith without fear of back-room deals and possible litigation from spurned players.

We already know there’s a live proposal on the table from Ubiquitous Entertainment Studios for 80 acres to build movie and production studios on a campus that the owners have said would be accessible to the community.

There would be nothing stopping Tyler Perry from submitting a proposal for his own movie studio. That could then be compared to other proposals in the light of day – letting the best ideas bubble to the surface.

A developer or developers, a state agency or a public-private partnership could submit proposals for a bio-medical campus (a long-time desire of the Georgia Research Alliance).

A residential developer could propose to create a turn-key community along officers’ row and the historic buildings with some infill housing with retail. All the amenities that existed when there was a base –stores, a movie theater, a post officer, etc. – could be recreated for a new, thriving community rather than for a movie set.

Given the upswing in the real estate market, a multi-purpose developer might be even interested in overseeing the entire project – working in tandem with the community – to develop the 488 acres thoughtfully, piece by piece.

The upside potential for MILRA (be it the city, county or state) is far greater than the $30 million being offered by Perry.

Depending on how it is structured, the state, the city, the county and/or MILRA could create a Tax Allocation District or some other program to set aside dedicated funds that could pay for the annual maintenance costs for a massive green space on the property (that could be a viable alternative to Piedmont Park as a large gathering space for Atlanta).

A community fund also could support a host of other amenities and ideas that had been put together to present to Tyler Perry in an interest to create a new Fort McPherson partnership.

Initially, the community had believed Perry when he said over the summer that he would meet with them to exchange ideas, and when he assured them he would be a sensitive neighbor. But that was the last time any one from the surround area has seen or heard from Tyler Perry.

As someone observed, his lack of response to the community over the past six months was a telling sign of what kind of neighbor Tyler Perry would have been.

I know Mayor Reed has been vested in the Tyler Perry deal, and I sympathize with his desire to keep a successful filmmaker in the City of Atlanta.

I also understand why he would want one person to buy most of the property – by doing so he wouldn’t have to be bothered with a major project for the rest of his administration.

But I also hope our mayor does not want to shortchange the community and the city in the interest of expediency and simplicity.

In his heart of hearts, I believe Mayor Reed wants what’s best for the neighborhoods around Fort Mac. I’m sure he will understand that a strategic plan combined with the inclusive redevelopment of the base will positively impact Atlanta for decades to come.

What an opportunity we have today with Fort McPherson. We can get it right – and in the right way.

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.

20 replies
  1. PaulaLaflamme says:

    Ms. Saporta, Have you driven around Fort Mac?  North, from East Point to Atlanta, on HWY 29?  That’s where you go to buy tires and have your an alternator rebuilt if you can’t afford to buy a new one.  Even Pilgreens Steakhouse is gone.  Since I moved to East Point in 1987, lots of patrons in our little downtown were soldiers.  East Point would be the short term winner in this sale.  Tri-City High School, which swept the Hensley Awards for musical theatre with 13 prizes would be another winner.  I feel Tyler Perry would be more open to sitting at the table with our kids, part of the only ITP Magnet Program south of I-20, than he has been willing to sit with people telling him what to do.  For years a recurring theme down here is to “get them off the train”.  Perry’s studio could do that.  Don’t you think there will be studio tours?  Commercial development around there isn’t going to happen because of some research park.  Cambellton, around the back of the Fort is full of boarded up houses.  The kind of development we need begs for lots of traffic, foot traffic that doesn’t go home at 5pm.  Please drive down 29 from Atlanta to East Point.  Drive around the back of the Fort.  You’ll see that we need something massive and well populated to spur the kind of commercial interest needed to pull that area back from the brink.  If you don’t want to drive, just take the train and witness that vast wasteland.Report

    Reply
  2. PaulaLaflamme says:

    This is my third comment.  The first one was accepted, but never appeared.  In it I mentioned how Senator Fort’s action in this matter made me vote for a Republican for the first time in almost half a century of dedicated voting.  There are going to be a lot of very upset voters in East Point if this deal does not go through.  Ft. Mac may be in Atlanta, but East Point is where the soldiers came to conduct business and get lunch. I hope Senator Fort will reach out to Tyler Perry and let him know he’s welcome here.Report

    Reply
  3. mariasaporta says:

    PaulaLaflamme Sorry you had a problem posting your first comment.  I have spent quite a bit of time around the Fort McPherson area, and I believe the real economic potential of the fort will be realized when it is opened up to the community. The Tyler Perry plan would largely keep 330 acres of the fort sealed off to the public – depressing the fort’s and the area’s economic vitality. You may believe Tyler Perry will open his arms to young people in East Point. But so far, his track record in Greenbriar and his unwillingness to meet with the Fort Mac communities as a good will gesture don’t bode well.  Also, we do not know what kind of demands he (or should I say his representatives) have been making behind closed doors. But my guess they have not been about making the deal more attractive for the city, the community and the public. Unfortunately, because it is all happening in secret, we have no way of knowing. There is no accountability. And I would think that even the folks in East Point would not want to give Tyler Perry unconditional power and a blank check to do what he wants with a public piece of property. What’s wrong with a little bit of sunlight? If the parties involved have nothing to hide, then they should have no reason to fear the likes of a Vincent Fort or a questioning reporter or an engaged board member or an interested citizen.Report

    Reply
  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    mariasaporta PaulaLaflamme Two questions for you, Maria.
    1. How many studios can Perry support? He has one at Greenbrier, he has a 1000 acres for another in Douglas County, and now he wants to buy 300+ acres at Ft. Mac on the cheap for a third.
    2. How many studios can metro Atlanta support? Add Lakewood and the proposed Jacoby development in Gwinnett to Tyler Perry’s properties.
    Perhaps Perry wants Ft. Mac for another purpose.Report

    Reply
  5. atlman says:

    Ms. Saporta:
    At some point you are going to have to deal with the fact that it has been over 8 years and Perry has made the only viable offer for the place. Ubiquitous Entertainment Studios A) has no identifiable assets, film or TV projects or even corporate structure lined up and B) is only looking to purchase less than 1/5th of the available land (which is why they are able to make their dubious claim that they will be accessible to the community). 
    All of these things that you claim “could happen” and “might happen” are pie-in-the-sky wishes. You pretend as if Kasim Reed and Tyler Perry have spent the last 8 years blocking all of these good ideas. They haven’t. The truth: no one wants to invest money in commercial projects in that part of town. The over $1 billion in development that is taking place in Atlanta right now targets downtown and north Atlanta. 
    “A developer or developers, a state agency or a public-private partnership could submit proposals for a bio-medical campus.”
    They have been trying to draw that project for years. They have not found any takers. What evidence is there that they ever will? That the bio-medical campus won’t be built downtown or in the northern suburbs, where all the other desirable projects go? 
    This looks like the same old Great Society stuff: hoping that some combination of taxpayer money and some good-hearted corporate white knight is going to come in and spend hundreds of millions of dollars that they are never going to get back. I repeat: investing that type of money in an undesirable area of town WILL LOSE MONEY. That is why no one is going to do it. A tax allocation district? Those have been set up in areas like Fort McPherson before … and they failed. 
    Honestly, right now I hope that the Perry deal falls through. Soon after, the fact that “Ubiquitous Entertainment” is a purely speculative venture with no assets, connections, or projects will be exposed. And all of the community activists, journalists etc. will get exactly what they deserve: which is that area remaining the blighted, undesirable area that it has been. Have you actually done any journalistic work and tried to identify residential developers, bio-science companies, etc. and asked any of them if they are interested in Fort McPherson, or any area like it?
    They blamed Fort McPherson for the lack of development? PLENTY of areas near military bases are thriving and booming economically (indeed both are). And what do they blame for the EIGHT YEARS of inactivity since the base closed? It looks like Tyler Perry was going to be their next scapegoat, along with Reed. Fine. Go ahead, let them pull out, and the people will find another scapegoat (likely Governor Deal, and the almost certain to be Republican governor who follows him). And when that happens, Ms. Saporta, where will you be? Simple: in your comfortable home in your upper class neighborhood. Meanwhile, the folks who actually live there will have to deal with what might have been and what will never be.Report

    Reply
  6. Burroughston Broch says:

    @atlman Perhaps the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce could buy Fort Mac, move their office there, and redevelop it themselves, showing the rest of us how it should be done. They plan to move anyway.
    When pigs fly…Report

    Reply
  7. DebAz says:

    Burroughston Broch mariasaporta PaulaLaflamme
    Perry plans to have only one studio. The one at Greenbriar will be shuttered and sold. The land in Douglas county will stay empty if he gets the land at Ft Mac.
    As for how many studios the ATL metro can handle, that is a great question. There is Lakewood,  Doraville/Jacoby, Pinewood (down in Fayette Co), and Perry’s. This is what many of us who live near the base fear, a “studio bubble” that will burst. These studios will stay only as long as the tax breaks stay as great as they are now. A better deal comes along or we cut back, and boom, they are gone. Look at NC, they have cut their breaks and lost almost all of their productions.Report

    Reply
  8. DebAz says:

    @atlman Base hasn’t NOT been closed for 8 years. It completely shut down in 2011/12. It was announced to close in 2006, with a 5 year draw down. Given that the Great Recession happened starting around 2007 and we are still recovering, it isn’t that big of a surprise that no one has stepped to the plate, especially when the bio-science was perhaps pie in the sky. Come on, who wants to invest in bio science in a state that can be so anti-science. But that doesn’t mean that any deal that comes along should be taken. Turn the golf course into a Piedmont Park south could help draw plenty of folks to the area (keep in mind, Midtown was once run down and the area around the park was not in good shape. The park improving helped to spur the area to improve). We have once council person talking about making the Quarry into a large event space and that is not near ANY major roads, interstates or MARTA rail. Meanwhile, Ft Mac is between 2 MARTA stations, and right off of 166, which ties it to both the Connector and 285.Report

    Reply
  9. 333 says:

    PaulaLaflamme You will be hard-pressed to get even a fraction of business from a movie studio. The are only operational when in production. They provide craft services (food and drink) for cast and crew onsite… meaning they will not travel into East Point for anything. And the vast majority of people hired onto productions are freelancers who are not making salaries. This will not be some sort of economic boon for East Point.Report

    Reply
  10. JWK says:

    Why not offer the campus to Mercedes Benz US for their new HQ? Or maybe the Turner Field properties? City of Atlanta shouldn’t just let Perimeter steal the thunder!Report

    Reply
  11. atlman says:

    JWK
    Because Mercedes Benz would not want to locate their executives and very high income managerial employees (i.e. $250,000 and up) into an economically depressed, high crime eyesore. Not only is driving there bad enough (depressing on a daily basis) … where do they go out for lunch? Not a single desirable eating establishment for miles. Where are they going to entertain clients for business deals? Ummm … no place nearby. And so forth. That is why NO ONE – or at least no one with any money – wants that property. Everyone thinks that Reed and Perry are blocking all of these great desirable potential projects in order to enrich themselves, especially since local activists, Shirley Franklin’s people and some folks in the local media made it into an issue. The reality: this property has been available for eight years and has had no takers. And it is not for the lack of trying. Two mayors, two governors, the feds etc. have all tried to unload this property and everyone has said no. And honestly, those folks don’t care if that area never gets a buyer, because that way they will be able to use it for homeless shelters and Section 8 housing, which of course they will go hat in hand to the city of Atlanta, Fulton County, the state of Georgia, the feds etc. to bankroll it. 
    If Mercedes-Benz actually locates in the city limits, it will either be downtown near Georgia Tech/Georgia State or in Buckhead/North Atlanta. Why? Because those are the only areas in the city proper that people with money want to live and work. Those are the facts, and wishing otherwise won’t change them.Report

    Reply
  12. atlman says:

    JWK
    It is actually good that Reed is from the private sector (a corporate lawyer). He doesn’t suffer from the delusions that people who have spent their entire career working for the government, in political jobs, in the civil rights or activist community etc. does. Folks like that will continue to convince themselves that corporate America and wealthy citizens are going to revitalize areas like that because you know social justice. The truth is that not even liberal billionaires like Ted Turner, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Tim Cook etc. spend so much as 5 minutes in an area like Fort McPherson, other than maybe time to take their limousine down there, take a photo op for one of their charity projects, and then hightail it out of there.Report

    Reply
  13. Guest says:

    @atlman JWK 
    Reed was never a “corporate” lawyer.  He represented rap stars while at Paul Hastings, and then added government affairs when he moved to Holland & Knight.  Reed could not handle a corporate law transaction if his life depended on it.Report

    Reply
  14. RealityAgent says:

    DebAz Good ideas, DebAz. I don’t know how many of you have driven through Fort McPherson, but there are some beautiful old homes there that deserve restoration. I remember looking at an old dilapidated mansion that overlooked the East Lake Country Club in the 1980’s. We could have purchased it for $50,000. There is great potential at Fort McPherson and many historical properties. To tear it all down would be another typical Atlanta development mistake…
    Please Atlanta – DON’T DO IT AGAIN!Report

    Reply
  15. Burroughston Broch says:

    RealityAgent DebAz  Agreed – but who pays for the restoration? Are you willing to?
    These properties have been abandoned for 8 years and there is no savior on the horizon.Report

    Reply
  16. RealityAgent says:

    Burroughston Broch DebAz Hopefully, a southside developer. There a some nice ones in South Fulton County. The city should be reaching out to southside developers and the neighbors and area realtors should be reaching out to the city to facilitate a connection between the two. Also, reporters that live in the area (especially that write for local publications) should be writing about this often to get more neighbors invested in the project. Fort Mac needs some squeaky wheels. A lot of voices and this huge project could raise the status of the whole area. “A rising tide lifts all the boats.”Report

    Reply
  17. Burroughston Broch says:

    RealityAgent Burroughston Broch DebAz  And where have all of these southside developers, neighbors, area realtors, and area reporters been for the last 8 years that they are unaware of Fort Mac?
    A financially viable need must exist and the price must be reasonable before the project can move forward. As an example, the former GM plant in Doraville closed in 2008 (After Fort Mac) and redevelopment is nor moving ahead after GM sold it for $50 million rather the $60-$70 million they had been asking.
    A financially viable need for Fort Mac is not apparent at this time.Report

    Reply
  18. DebAz says:

    Burroughston Broch RealityAgent DebAz
    At this point it is probably a moot point since Kasim went and packed the board with his “yes” people and they voted for the deal.  However, assume it doesn’t happen. You are ignoring this part of Maria’s post:
    “For starters, MILRA could revive its agreement with Gov. Nathan Deal and the state of Georgia to move the Georgia Police Academy to the Army’s state-of-the-art communications command center that sits on 20 acres of land.
    The state had offered MILRA nearly $10 million, and then Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had talked the governor into withdrawing the state’s offer because Perry wanted that building as part of his deal.
    If the Tyler deal fell apart, however, the governor let it be known he would be prepared to resubmit his offer.”
    So someone had stepped up. And with them being the anchor, who knows what else you could get now. My view has always been if you get enough jobs there the retail and housing will follow. So make some good deals with companies that will have full time jobs there (not a studio that is project dependent). Give them tax breaks. With Atlanta being the HQ for so many non-profit’s international headquarters (CARE, HFHI, Arthritis Foundation) and regional headquarters (Boys and Girls Club), why not turn this area into a “non profit center of excellence”. Give them breaks on utilities and rent for a certain period of time (20-30 years). 
    But again, this Mayor has no patience and only cares about getting things off the books. Look at what we found out about Underground recently. They had only ONE bidder and instead of rebidding, they just took it.Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.