By Maria Saporta and Amy Wenk
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on July 4, 2014
Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s plans to turn most of Fort McPherson into a movie studio would rewrite the script for the idyllic 488-acre property located halfway between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Perry have become leading players in a seven-year play to transform and redevelop Fort McPherson following the closing of the Army base, a presence in the area since 1885.
Previous master plans to redevelop the property have called for more than 100 acres of the beautifully landscaped golf course to be converted into a city park, to have more than 4,000 residential units developed on the property, to have 4 million square feet of office space including a major research and development park as well as 400,000 square feet of commercial and retail space.
Perry’s proposal to turn the property into a movie studio would be a sharp turn from the previous master plans.
“Tyler Perry will be paying $33 million for about 363 acres. That leaves us 125 acres,” Reed said, adding that the U.S. Army is expecting a payment of $30 million for the property this month. “This pays off the entire debt.”
Reed acknowledged that plans for a movie studio are different than what had been contemplated for the property in previous plans. But none of those plans ever materialized.
“It’s now been seven years, and no one has come forward with any payment of any kind,” Reed said. “No one has ever put up a dime.”
The McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority(MILRA) is in the process of negotiating a memorandum of understanding with Perry. Several members of the authority said that details are still being negotiated and that it is too early to know exactly where and how much land Perry will own if and when the deal is done.
“We went out for three years looking for developers, and nobody was willing to invest and put some capital in it,” said Felker Ward, MILRA’s board chair, adding that many of those years, metro Atlanta was in the middle of a real estate recession. Ward said the authority still has a long way to go to approve a plan and to sell the land to Perry. “We are taking our responsibility very seriously,” Ward said.
One of the major issues for several board members is that a Perry movie studio would just replace one fortress with another fortress.
“The community was very excited about the walls coming down,” said Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who represents the Fort McPherson area and serves on the authority board as an ad-hoc member. “You cannot keep the walls up the way it is now.”
That said, Sheperd is not opposed to Perry putting a studio on the property as long as it can help lift up the community. She would like him to establish a job training facility as part of his development.
“This can be a lift for the southside of Atlanta,” she said. “And we don’t have anybody else knocking on our door.”
But major issues have to be addressed, such as who is going to maintain the land; who is going to cover the cost of the federal requirements of providing housing for the homeless; and what kind of access will the public have to the land, including the green space.
The Tyler Perry deal also seemed to come from behind a curtain, with members of the authority only becoming aware of the possibility when they were informed by Reed.
At the time, the state of Georgia had put in a bid to buy the Army Reserve Building for $10 million for its police academy, which would have given the state about 20 acres.
But Reed informed the authority that Perry was interested in that building for his offices, so the mayor had gone to Gov. Nathan Deal, who agreed to withdraw the state’s bid and defer to the city’s desire to try to put together a deal with Perry.
Also, the authority had an appraisal done by Pritchett, Ball & Wise Inc. for the entire 488 acres in February, and the market value was estimated to be about $109 million.
“This is a great piece of property,” Sheperd said, adding that the Perry deal “may be less than what it’s worth at market value.” But currently the property is not on the city’s tax rolls, and a Perry studio would add jobs and pay property taxes. Sheperd said her greatest issue is the impact the development will have on the community. That’s why she established the Community Engagement Sub-Committee of neighborhoods within a mile of the fort that has been meeting monthly. The last meeting was June 25, when many residents expressed concerns about the proposed development.
“I never expected for people to come into the room and say ‘I love it,’ ” Sheperd said. But Sheperd said she has been meeting with Perry’s representatives to try to alleviate the community’s concerns. “Literally as we speak, the lines are still being drawn,” she said. “We’ve talked about green space. I’m looking at that. We can possibly save some green space. It won’t be 100 acres.”
Chandra Houston, an attorney and business owner who is on MILRA’s executive committee, said negotiations were still early and many of the announced statements about the deal were subject to change. “We’ve got a lot to think about – what really does make sense and what is going to bring the best outcome, not only for the city, but also the neighborhoods.”
Hunter said the community would like to see a redevelopment similar to the Villages of East Lake. “We have an extreme issue with blight in our community,” she said. “We are a jobs-poor community where the majority of residents earn less than $1,200 a month.”
Reed said the neighborhoods would be part of the process. “We are going to have multiple and significant engagement with the communities on the front end, and I definitely think they will benefit from this compared to a vacant military base,” the mayor said.
Hunter said Oakland City leaders are considering a “community benefits agreement” to be attached to the Tyler Perry deal. “We want to be a part of Fort Mac,” she said. “We want to see it as a beginning of a partnership, the sharing of a dream. Whether that happens, we have to wait and see.”
Ayesha Khanna, another MILRA board member, said Fort McPherson is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Atlanta.
“Fort McPherson needs to drive economic development in South Atlanta,” Khanna said. “Our master plan includes job creation and the need to meet federal requirements for human services such as supportive housing. It also includes a 150-acre park. The green space is a key public amenity. This could be the Piedmont Park of the south. It is critical that these objectives are met as we emerge from this economic recession. We have one chance to get this right.”