Fort McPherson: 1885 – 2011; future unclear for 488 acre site

By David Pendered

The gates at Fort McPherson are to swing shut for the last time near midnight Wednesday, and the future use of the 488 acre site seems absolutely unclear.

Blame the economy.

The private sector is hording cash. Governments at all levels slashing programs and staff to balance their budgets.

In this economic environment, it’s tough to imagine the formation of a proposed public-private venture named the Georgia Science & Technology Park. The reuse plan for the fort calls for the state to lead the way in fostering a 127-acre campus of enterprises engaged in research and development.

Fort McPherson Main Gate

Fort McPherson Main Gate. Photo by David Pendered

Equally difficult to imagine is the live-work-play community the plan envisions on the 361 acres of rolling, wooded land that aren’t part of the research park.

After all, the Atlanta region’s business climate is such that the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is conducting a survey of members intended, in part, to define the chamber’s role. The real estate market is such that vertical construction of an apartment complex in Buckhead, due to begin over the summer, has not started – even with a subsidy of up to $62 million from the city’s development arm, the Atlanta Development Authority.

On the flip side, an investor did purchase the nearly vacant building in downtown Atlanta known best as the Equitable Building. A developer bought and intends to start work next year on a downsized version of the project best known as Streets of Buckhead. And a developer purchased City Hall East with plans to renovate the old Sears building into homes and commercial spaces.

At Fort McPherson, the concept of a developing a life-sciences research center as the site’s business anchor emerged early on in discussions that commenced in 2005. Research facilities seemed to be an ideal second-life use of Army buildings that were designed for some of the nation’s top military thinkers.

The research concept fit well into Georgia’s broader economic goal of fostering its nascent high-tech R&D industry. Bio-life research seemed the perfect step forward for the state’s strong traditional research endeavors.

Neighboring southern states already had trail-blazed the high-tech research path, with great success. North Carolina fostered development of Research Triangle Park by leveraging Duke University, N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina. Texas leveraged its flagship university to develop MD Cancer Center, in Houston.

Now Georgia is poised to do the same. It says so right there in the 12-page plan produced by the state authority overseeing the fort’s conversion to civilian use.

This is part of the vision statement at the start of the document:
• “The strength is Georgia’s bioscience industry…
• “The need is a physical focal point where scientists from different types of institution will work side-by-side…
• “The opportunity is Fort McPherson … a first-of-its kind science and technology park for Georgia.”

The closing remark of the vision statement underscores the challenge and opportunity that faces this big dream as it encounters economic reality, a hard reality that’s far different from the comparative boom times when the plan took shape:
• “The redevelopment strategy has been analyzed and refined for years. The time has come to act – to take the first steps toward turning an ambitious dream into a rewarding reality.”

Incidentally, the reuse plan was overseen and adopted by a state entity named the Fort McPherson Local Redevelopment Authority. Civic leader Felker Ward chairs the authority.

The authority is the entity that will accept the land conveyance from the Army and act as the master developer – leasing and selling land and existing structures. The Army cannot transfer property to a local government or private entity, according to the Army’s website.

In order to implement the plan, the initial Fort McPherson LRA has been reconstituted into the Fort McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority.

Click here to read more about the authority.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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