Note to readers: For the past couple of weeks, I have written two Maria’s Metro columns about the incredible opportunity we have to redevelop Fort McPherson and problems I have with the current plans to sell 330 acres to Tyler Perry. Here is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s unedited response to those columns. Obviously I take issue with several of his statements, but more on that later. Maria Saporta
Response by Reed Administration to Saporta Report Columns Published on May 4 and May 11, 2015
ATLANTA – Fort McPherson is one of the most important properties in the City of Atlanta, and its future is worthy of engaged and spirited public dialogue. After the Army departed in 2007, the property sat mostly vacant for more than seven years with no commercially viable offers for redevelopment from an operating business with the verifiable financial capacity to close a significant land purchase or fund its redevelopment. In August, the McPherson Implementing Redevelopment Authority Board (MILRA), the body established by the State of Georgia and recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Defense to oversee and vet the property’s redevelopment plans, voted overwhelmingly for a proposal submitted by Tyler Perry to build a production facility on a 330-acre parcel.
Based on serious and thoughtful consideration, the MILRA board decided that the proposed entertainment complex would attract robust investment to the city’s long-neglected south side neighborhoods, expand its already burgeoning television and film industry, and strengthen Atlanta’s position as the cultural and economic center of the Southeast. Notably, the MILRA board is chaired by Felker Ward, a retired army lieutenant colonel who was appointed by Governor Sonny Perdue, and has led the organization since its inception. Further, more than 75 percent of the MILRA board is comprised of individuals who have been part of the redevelopment process since 2007. As outlined in the agreement, Tyler Perry Studios will cover the acquisition costs, the majority of the carry costs (which total more than $3.5 million annually), and will invest over $100 million in the property, creating a substantial boost to the city’s tax rolls. Importantly, after the $30 million acquisition, MILRA will continue to own 144 acres (a parcel equal in size to Atlantic Station) debt free and at no cost to Atlanta’s taxpayers. The property would remain accessible to the community through tours, job training and employment opportunities. Finally, no economic incentives have been offered to Mr. Perry.
The board also determined that Perry, who has a distinguished business track record in metropolitan Atlanta, would be a strong redevelopment partner. In 2008, he opened his first studio in a long-neglected area of southwest Atlanta. Through his various entertainment ventures, Perry has invested more than $200 million in Georgia.
Mayor Kasim Reed strongly supports the decision of the MILRA board, as does the Atlanta City Council, which voted 12-1 in favor of the proposal. Yet, in two recent columns about Fort McPherson, Maria Saporta has chosen not only to disregard, but also to distort these facts and instead create a false narrative based on misguided assumptions and questionable sources. In part one of her series, she creates fear about the transaction and with no basis in fact, paints a picture of a future Fort McPherson sealed away from the community by high studio walls. In fact, all parties involved in the agreement have voiced their interest in preserving Fort McPherson’s historic homes and charming features.
Saporta also raises questions about the financial stability of Perry’s company and attacks his integrity as a businessman, referencing a blogger named Shawn James whose other work includes offensive postings such as, “Why 70 Percent of Black Women Are Single.” She even questions the financial success and viability of Oprah Winfrey’s cable network as a distribution partner. Not even Oprah Winfrey is good enough for Maria Saporta. Saporta has years of experience as a business journalist; one can only conclude James was her best source of information for insight on Perry’s bottom line. This line of inquiry was at best pedantic; at worst, it was deeply insulting to Perry, who surely could not have an estimated net worth of $400 million without a basic understanding of his company’s revenues, expenses, and investment and risk capacity.
Unfortunately, the use of questionable sources continues in Saporta’s second column. There, she cites a single person, David Edwards, former deputy chief operating officer under former Mayor Shirley Franklin. What Saporta fails to mention is that Edwards is not an impartial observer; he is the husband of Ayesha Khanna, a former MILRA board member who was removed from her position in December by Governor Nathan Deal. Again, Saporta is a veteran reporter who knows better than to rely on a single source who is emotionally invested in the topic.
Importantly, in a memo written to Mayor Reed in 2010 outlining recommendations for the new administration, Edwards stated that the city did not need to hire any more police officers. Today, with 2,000 officers on the force, the city has seen a 25 percent reduction in overall crime. His failed economic advice left the city with only $7.4 million in reserves in January of 2010, and a $1.5 billion unfunded pension liability. Historic pension reform in 2011 restored the city’s financial stability and cash reserves are now over $140 million. Accordingly, Mr. Edwards was frequently wrong then, and he and Saporta are wrong now.
Even more confounding, Edwards’ vision of a redevelopment model for Fort McPherson doesn’t recognize today’s market realities. He mistakenly opines that the sale of the property is similar to the redevelopment of the Atlanta BeltLine and Ponce City Market. Furthermore, he argues in favor of using taxpayer dollars as a means to leverage private funds for development at Fort McPherson, a possible consideration in a pre-Great Recession economy, but certainly not in 2015 when we can move this project forward without financial support from the City of Atlanta.
Mayor Reed, by contrast, has made a successful practice of leveraging private and federal funds as a means to substantially boost the impact of the city’s dollars, thus protecting residents from any resulting property tax burden. For example, the Reed administration secured an $18 million grant from the Obama administration, along with philanthropic and state grant dollars, for the $43 million expansion of the BeltLine, the largest expansion in its history. Likewise, a $47 million federal grant led to the construction of the Atlanta Streetcar which has attracted more than 258,000 riders to date and $800 million in new construction within a five-minute walk of its route.
Mayor Reed has sometimes been criticized for moving quickly, but it is indisputable that his strong leadership, negotiating skills and keen ability to respond quickly to market demands and work fluidly with business leaders have led to greater opportunities for the City of Atlanta and resulted in historic economic development and investment. A few examples include the opening of the $100 million North American headquarters of Porsche Cars North America next to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport; selling City Hall East and securing Jamestown Properties as the developer of Ponce City Market; securing a new developer for Buckhead Atlanta; moving forward with the sale of Underground Atlanta; co-funding the Atlanta Falcons Stadium and acquiring the Morris Brown College campus on the Westside; and opening EUE Screen Gems at Lakewood.
These developments have brought more than $2.5 billion in new private investment to the city, often on plots of land that have been empty or pockmarked with eyesores that lowered property values or drained the City’s budget. The money spent each year to maintain a shuttered City Hall East or underperforming Underground Atlanta will now go to fund infrastructure improvements and services that improve the day-to-day experience of the city’s residents and visitors.
The future of Fort McPherson is no less bright, and no one is more willing to discuss it than Mayor Reed. Despite Saporta’s postscripts at the end of her columns, the Reed administration welcomes the conversation on Fort McPherson, encourages the debate and respects the press — but the dialogue must be based on facts, not fiction.