By Maria Saporta and Douglas Sams
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on April 25, 2014
A 37-acre tract of land controlled by Morris Brown College is reaching a pivotal point.
Bids for the historic Atlanta campus are due April 30, according to documents filed in federal bankruptcy court. Those proposals could determine who will own that property, how the land will be redeveloped and what the future holds for Morris Brown College, which lost its accreditation in 2002.
The move sets up the potential for multiple players to jockey for position to buy the campus on both sides of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. It’s located in the Vine City neighborhood near English Avenue and Castleberry Hill, and it is just two blocks away from the new $1.2 billion stadium for the Atlanta Falcons and it is a key link to the other historically black universities on the westside.
“It’s such a large piece of property that if it’s not developed in the right way, it’s going to be very difficult to revitalize English Avenue and Vine City,” said Brian McGowan, who served as president and CEO of Invest Atlanta and is now chief operating officer of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
That’s why April 30 is such a critical date for the community, he said.
“We are going to open this $1.2 billion stadium,” McGowan said. “The eyes of the world are going to be on Atlanta on opening day, and if you go up Martin Luther King, and you see what is there now, it’s going to be a bad image for Atlanta. Morris Brown is two blocks from the stadium. It’s the linchpin. If Morris Brown doesn’t happen the right way, you are going to blow an historic opportunity.”
Construction on the stadium is underway, and it is set to open in 2017.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank and The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation have committed $15 million to help transform the neighborhoods around the stadium. The city of Atlanta’s Invest Atlanta also has pledged $15 million to help revitalize the Westside communities.
The Morris Brown campus is in the heart of the area that Blank and the city of Atlanta have said they would like to see transformed in conjunction with the development of the new stadium.
Dan Sherman, a veteran Atlanta attorney now with DH Sherman, a real estate development practice, said of the days leading to the April 30 deadline, “This is going to be a very active process given the location of the site in such a historic section of the city. The $1.2 billion investment alone should hasten a lot of people to come to the table and make a bid.”
Morris Brown is trying to claw its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The AME Church did loan Morris Brown $7.5 million last fall so it could buy out its major creditors. In addition to the AME Church, Morris Brown also owes the U.S. Department of Education $1.5 million. The sale of the property would go toward paying back those creditors and possibly others.
Earlier this year, it inked an agreement with Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.(JLL) to assist with “the disposition of the campus and the retention of a portion of the campus for its continued operations.
JLL declined comment about the sale.
Multiple buyers could be jockeying to buy the campus. But the Falcons’ owner does not appear to be one of them.
“We are not involved or engaged in this process, nor are we familiar with developers who may be engaged,” said Kim Shreckengost, executive vice president and chief of staff for AMB Group LLC, which oversees the various business interests for Arthur Blank. “We do think this property would play an important role in the overall transformation of the Westside communities.”
Other buyers appear ready to step forward, at least for part of the property. They include Friendship Baptist Church, which sold its historic church property for $19.5 million to make room for the new Falcons stadium.
“Friendship Baptist Church continues to be interested in permanently relocating our congregation in the Vine City community, and the Morris Brown property continues to be one of our preferred options,” said Lloyd Hawk, chairman of Friendship’s Board of Trustees. “Friendship also continues to be interested in working with partners in the community to help transform Vine City area, including the Morris Brown property.”
Morris Brown has had several opportunities over the years to sell or lease its land, but deals have not materialized.
The city also made a proposal to buy the Morris Brown property for just under $10 million but was turned down by the college’s senior leadership.
Later, FD LLC expressed interest in buying the property, but the firm’s financing did not come through.
Earlier this year, Atlanta developer Pope & Land Enterprises Inc. tried unsuccessfully to buy the property.
It is not known whether the city is planning to submit another proposal in time for the April 30 deadline.
Mayor Kasim Reed said no in a press briefing.
But people inside of City Hall are said to be working on a proposal.
The college has roots in Atlanta that date back to the late 1800s. It started having financial troubles more than a decade ago, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August 2012.
Since then, Morris Brown has been operating with a skeletal staff and faculty teaching about three dozen students.