Fort McPherson – secret treasure can spark rebirth of Atlanta’s southside

By Maria Saporta

The second in a two-part series about the economic opportunity on metro Atlanta’s southside. Last week: significance of Clayton’s vote on Nov. 4 to join MARTA.

Behind the walls surrounding Fort McPherson, a secret Atlanta treasure remains hidden from public view.

The 488-acre property – larger than three Atlantic Stations – currently includes an historic row of officers’ housing, a golf course, beautiful historic buildings, a parade ground, lakes and numerous amenities that helped Fort McPherson become its own self-contained community.

Behind the walls of Fort Mac

Behind the walls of Fort Mac

Unfortunately few Atlantans have ever had the opportunity to look behind the curtain to experience Fort McPherson’s treasures.

And if the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority and the City of Atlanta continue with their current plans to sell 331 acres of the property to movie mogul Tyler Perry, the treasures will remain shut off to the public behind lock and key.

What a missed opportunity for the surrounding communities. What a missed opportunity for the City of Atlanta. And what a missed opportunity for the entire southside of the Atlanta region.

It is even more disappointing that the very people and the very authorities that should be looking out for what is best for the community, for the city and for the region are going along with the path of least resistance rather than holding out for what is the best solution.

Historic fficers' row

Historic fficers’ row

I’m talking about Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed; MILRA Chairman Felker Ward and all the members of the authority (with the exception of Ayesha Khanna – the only board member to vote against the proposed Tyler Perry deal); and City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who is supposed to be looking out for her constituents.

It was Sheperd who insisted early on after the Perry deal had been announced that it was important to not just replace one fort with another fort.

“The community was very excited about the walls coming down,” Sheperd said in July. “You cannot keep the walls up the way it is now.”

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But today, Sheperd and few others in the community are demanding that Tyler Perry not turn his 330 acres into a fort within a fort. At a Community Engagement Sub-Committee meeting on Oct. 22, none of the draft recommendations addressed public access to what would be Perry’s property.

The draft recommendations began with big-picture statements: “As goes Fort McPherson, so goes this part of town.” “Think Big; and Think Long-term.” “MILRA and Tyler Perry Studios: Partners for 100 Years.”

There are 17 neighborhoods with a total of 45,000 residents within a one-mile radius of Fort McPherson – and yet most of those residents have been shut out of the pristine Fort and its amenities for most of the decades that it has been located at Lee Street and Campbellton Road S.W. since 1885.

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The draft Memo of Understanding between MILRA and Tyler Perry Studios is far from transparent – many blocks of the agreement are blacked out. MILRA has not even disclosed which 331 acres would be owned by Perry and which 144 acres would be owned by the City of Atlanta. The Veterans Administration would own 10 acres and the Credit Union would own 3 acres to make up the 488 acres.

MILRA’s negotiations and agreement with Tyler Perry Studios currently has been legally challenged in federal court by UES (Ubiquitous Entertainment Studios). UES had been working on plans for movie studios at Fort McPherson for three years when told by MILRA officials that it could not enter into negotiations until it had bought the property from the U.S. Army.

A few months later, UES heard MILRA was negotiating with Tyler Perry for a movie studio deal.

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Leaving the ongoing legal questions to the courts, this column is more focused on the public policy questions related to the future development of Fort McPherson.

These are the questions that our elected officials and the MILRA board should have been asking if they had been doing their jobs of looking out for the betterment of the community.

Instead, they seemed to be more interested in taking the easy way out rather than opening up the process to iproposals to see what options were available to redevelop the 488 acres.

The way we’re going, we may never know what those options could have been.

But we do know of one option that existed.

Let’s compare.

Tyler Perry, Felker Ward and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

Tyler Perry, Felker Ward and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

Option 1:

Tyler Perry supposedly is offering to buy 331 acres for $30 million – paying $20 million at the time of conveyance – when the City of Atlanta would be buying the 488 acres from the U.S. Army.

The city would pay the Artmy $13million at that moment and then pay a balance of $13 million over a period of time.

The city would have 144 acres left over to redevelop as it pleases – provided it met its obligations to provide housing for the homeless.

Option 2:

Forscom building

Forscom building

The State of Georgia already had offered to buy the Forscom building for its police academy for $10 million. The building sits on about 20 acres. Mayor Reed was able to convince Gov. Nathan Deal to withdraw the state’s offer because Tyler Perry wanted the building for his studio complex. But the governor did tell Reed that if the Perry deal fell through, the state would be still be itnerested in buying the building.

Ubiquitous already had offered $6 million for 80 acres for its movie complex. But the business plan had anticipated that it would cost $10 million to acquire the 80 acres.

So it is safe to assume that MILRA would have been able to generate $20 million by selling just 100 acres. That would have given MILRA enough money ($13 million) to make its first payment to the U.S. Army and left it with 388 acres.

Fort McPherson's golf course

Fort McPherson’s golf course

(By the way, UES has promised to open much of its complex to the community and include a film training school as part of its development).

Also, the state of Georgia had been planning to develop a bio-science park at the Fort McPherson. In fact, if one calls up the website, it still highlights the bio-science park – even though that has been cast aside with the Perry deal.

At a recent meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance, a consultant’s recommendation suggested that an alternate location must be found for the bio-science park now that Fort McPherson would no longer be available.

If MILRA had 388 acres at its disposal, it would be able to keep the historic officers’ row, the parade ground, most of the other amenities as part of the public domain. And it would be able to develop a bio-science park, create new multi-family residences, retail and entertainment facilities on the property.

An earlier master plan for Fort McPherson

An earlier master plan for Fort McPherson

The city also had looked to transform large portions of the golf course into a park that could have been used for major festivals and special events. Fort McPherson is strategically positioned between two MARTA stations, making it one of the most accessible sites – located midway between downtown and Hartsfield-International Airport.

But all those options will be closed off – literally – if the Tyler Perry deal goes through. The green space and the historic officers’ row will be fenced off and used for movie sets instead of becoming part of the living fabric of our city and our neighborhoods.

Once again we will be short-changing our city, our southside neighborhoods, our economic potential and our future.

Wake up Atlanta. We don’t have to settle for second-class status that will keep our treasure chest on the southside locked forever.

We deserve more. And after all these years of being shut out of Fort McPherson’s secret garden, the southside certainly deserves more.

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.

23 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    How many movie studios can exist long term in metro Atlanta? A movie studio is the popular choice for every derelict piece of property; examples are Lakewood, Fort Mac, the OFS plant at Jimmy Carter Blvd. and I285, and now Shannon Mall.Report

    Reply
  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    How many movie studios can exist long term in metro Atlanta? A movie studio is the popular choice for every derelict piece of property; examples are Lakewood, Fort Mac, the OFS plant at Jimmy Carter Blvd. and I285, and now Shannon Mall.Report

    Reply
  3. ChristiePeters says:

    Excellent article.  I learned more about the prior proposed uses in the informative piece of reporting than from multiple sources over the past several months.  Thank you.Report

    Reply
  4. ChristiePeters says:

    Excellent article.  I learned more about the prior proposed uses in the informative piece of reporting than from multiple sources over the past several months.  Thank you.Report

    Reply
  5. Gogreeno says:

    It is time for the southside, westside, eastside and northside to stand up against corruption. We all need to unite and
    put a stop to the flagrant lack of transparency and arrogance coming from our
    current Mayor. Remember when Reed said this about the Airport Concessions in
    April 2012:  The recent process of awarding
    $3 billion worth of airport vending contracts was the “most open and
    transparent procurement process in the city’s history.”   What a joke. How about the back-scratching deal
    with the Mayor’s entertainment law firm client, Live Nation (Peter Conlon), to
    turn the Green Concert (which benefited the
    Piedmont Park conservancy) into a for-profit destruction of Piedmont Park?
    Speaking of entertainment-schmoozing, what about the old Magnolia trees he cut
    down last month with no permits to film a movie http://2wsb.tv/1xYzDNi ?  Now the
    entertainment-lawyer-turned-mayor has really stepped up his conflict-of-
    interest game with the Invest Atlanta and MILRAshams. How many more of his entertainment clients are lining up to cash-in on Atlanta’s jewels? However,
    these are not the most damning corrupt acts; the Mayor’s most outrageous lack of
    transparency (shadiness) is his recent denial to turn over the accounts payable
    Oracle information to Councilmember Felicia Moore www.11alive.com/story/news/politics/2014/…/17748871/ . What are you trying to hide,
    Mr. Reed? Is it your money or is it ours?  Stop him, Atlanta! Let’s unite to save him
    (and ourselves) from his own gReed.Report

    Reply
  6. Gogreeno says:

    It is time for the southside, westside, eastside and northside to stand up against corruption. We all need to unite and
    put a stop to the flagrant lack of transparency and arrogance coming from our
    current Mayor. Remember when Reed said this about the Airport Concessions in
    April 2012:  The recent process of awarding
    $3 billion worth of airport vending contracts was the “most open and
    transparent procurement process in the city’s history.”   What a joke. How about the back-scratching deal
    with the Mayor’s entertainment law firm client, Live Nation (Peter Conlon), to
    turn the Green Concert (which benefited the
    Piedmont Park conservancy) into a for-profit destruction of Piedmont Park?
    Speaking of entertainment-schmoozing, what about the old Magnolia trees he cut
    down last month with no permits to film a movie http://2wsb.tv/1xYzDNi ?  Now the
    entertainment-lawyer-turned-mayor has really stepped up his conflict-of-
    interest game with the Invest Atlanta and MILRAshams. How many more of his entertainment clients are lining up to cash-in on Atlanta’s jewels? However,
    these are not the most damning corrupt acts; the Mayor’s most outrageous lack of
    transparency (shadiness) is his recent denial to turn over the accounts payable
    Oracle information to Councilmember Felicia Moore www.11alive.com/story/news/politics/2014/…/17748871/ . What are you trying to hide,
    Mr. Reed? Is it your money or is it ours?  Stop him, Atlanta! Let’s unite to save him
    (and ourselves) from his own gReed.Report

    Reply
  7. Concerned and Involved says:

    This is a very unfortunate deal for the Southwest side of Atlanta.  Once, this redevelopment project was looked at as a jump-start for our beleaguered communities but it could be a boondoggle that may not benefit the surrounding communities, city, or the state at all.  There is this group in Atlanta who is selling off our City piece by piece, with no regard for the citizens of Atlanta.  That is why our election process is so very precious.  It begins with us.   Be educated, investigate, don’t get your information from campaign commercials and don’t be swayed because a persons phenotype.  This is what we get when we don’t examine the character of a  political candidateReport

    Reply
  8. Concerned and Involved says:

    This is a very unfortunate deal for the Southwest side of Atlanta.  Once, this redevelopment project was looked at as a jump-start for our beleaguered communities but it could be a boondoggle that may not benefit the surrounding communities, city, or the state at all.  There is this group in Atlanta who is selling off our City piece by piece, with no regard for the citizens of Atlanta.  That is why our election process is so very precious.  It begins with us.   Be educated, investigate, don’t get your information from campaign commercials and don’t be swayed because a persons phenotype.  This is what we get when we don’t examine the character of a  political candidateReport

    Reply
  9. JShorter says:

    I hate to say it, but I was not FULLY aware of ALL of the implications until this article.  I applaud the author for clearly mapping out more details than I have received before.  I hope the Tyler Perry Studios has spillover business for the surrounding area, but readily admit that I would rather see the ‘campus’ open to a variety of businesses (public and private) as well as for public festivals.  The Southside is a hidden gem.  I want it to retain the small town feel it has, but with more economic benefits of its position to AtlantaReport

    Reply
  10. JShorter says:

    I hate to say it, but I was not FULLY aware of ALL of the implications until this article.  I applaud the author for clearly mapping out more details than I have received before.  I hope the Tyler Perry Studios has spillover business for the surrounding area, but readily admit that I would rather see the ‘campus’ open to a variety of businesses (public and private) as well as for public festivals.  The Southside is a hidden gem.  I want it to retain the small town feel it has, but with more economic benefits of its position to AtlantaReport

    Reply
  11. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch
    There are two types of studio products.
    1. Those tied to a film or production company that already has a slate of projects funded and in preproduction.
    2. Speculation by real estate agents, land owners and public officials.
    The Lakewood and the Tyler Perry projects are 1. Those will bring jobs and revenue at least in the short term, especially the Lakewood one. 
    The Shannon Mall project is 2. It has absolutely no shot of succeeding unless Atlanta becomes to movies and film what it was to urban music in the 1990s-2000s. Fortunately, the Shannon Mall redevelopment project also includes a distribution center so it won’t be a total fiasco. 
    The OFS site as a category by itself. The scale and potential of that project are simply off the charts, especially since it will not merely be a studio but will also have a film school (which is this area’s biggest need if the film/TV industry is going to grow and be sustainable long term … Clayton State is starting a program to provide quick vocational style training for “blue collar” work in the industry, but this would train the highly specialized, skilled talent that is difficult to find outside of California and New York … apart from the fact that nearly every major university has a film school of course!) and a special effects operation. The latter part is major too because A) there are already several special effects operations in Atlanta, even if some that started here have moved their main operations to California and B) they will be able to do postproduction work for movies (and video games) that aren’t even shot on location here. 

    So be very excited for the OFS site, which will do a lot more for transforming the economy of the northern suburbs than the Braves stadium will (my prediction: DeKalb and downtown Atlanta will be more desirable than Cobb in 20 years), be excited for the Lakewood project (which has backing from a major foreign studio looking to cut costs and for a tax shelter), be excited/hopeful for the Perry Project because it will finally mean some economic development below I-20 (that and the Georgia State University expansion project), but as for the Shannon Mall project, well hey 3 out of 4 ain’t bad and at least they get a distribution center out of the deal.Report

    Reply
  12. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch
    There are two types of studio products.
    1. Those tied to a film or production company that already has a slate of projects funded and in preproduction.
    2. Speculation by real estate agents, land owners and public officials.
    The Lakewood and the Tyler Perry projects are 1. Those will bring jobs and revenue at least in the short term, especially the Lakewood one. 
    The Shannon Mall project is 2. It has absolutely no shot of succeeding unless Atlanta becomes to movies and film what it was to urban music in the 1990s-2000s. Fortunately, the Shannon Mall redevelopment project also includes a distribution center so it won’t be a total fiasco. 
    The OFS site as a category by itself. The scale and potential of that project are simply off the charts, especially since it will not merely be a studio but will also have a film school (which is this area’s biggest need if the film/TV industry is going to grow and be sustainable long term … Clayton State is starting a program to provide quick vocational style training for “blue collar” work in the industry, but this would train the highly specialized, skilled talent that is difficult to find outside of California and New York … apart from the fact that nearly every major university has a film school of course!) and a special effects operation. The latter part is major too because A) there are already several special effects operations in Atlanta, even if some that started here have moved their main operations to California and B) they will be able to do postproduction work for movies (and video games) that aren’t even shot on location here. 

    So be very excited for the OFS site, which will do a lot more for transforming the economy of the northern suburbs than the Braves stadium will (my prediction: DeKalb and downtown Atlanta will be more desirable than Cobb in 20 years), be excited for the Lakewood project (which has backing from a major foreign studio looking to cut costs and for a tax shelter), be excited/hopeful for the Perry Project because it will finally mean some economic development below I-20 (that and the Georgia State University expansion project), but as for the Shannon Mall project, well hey 3 out of 4 ain’t bad and at least they get a distribution center out of the deal.Report

    Reply
  13. Burroughston Broch says:

    atlman I think you are overly optimistic, particularly since the State of California is trying to lure the film studios back.
    I doubt Tyler Perry will have more than one project.Report

    Reply
  14. Burroughston Broch says:

    atlman I think you are overly optimistic, particularly since the State of California is trying to lure the film studios back.
    I doubt Tyler Perry will have more than one project.Report

    Reply
  15. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch atlman
    “particularly since the State of California is trying to lure the film studios back”
    That will hurt the Shannon Mall project but not Lakewood, Perry or OFS. Lakewood and OFS are going to be “branch offices” or “regional offices”, if you will, of very large media companies. They aren’t going to spend hundreds of millions to build those facilities and let them sit idle. Also, movie projects are in the pipeline for years. It can take up to 10 years to get an original project from the drawing board to the screen (sequels obviously move a lot faster). So the financing for the initial round of projects for these studios are already in place. California’s tax incentives will only affect projects years out. 
    “I doubt Tyler Perry will have more than one project.” 
    And you base this on what exactly? Wishful thinking maybe? Here is the deal: Perry doesn’t even need to develop his own personal projects anymore. Perry’s company has started developing projects for other producers and directors. Perry will also be able to lease his studio space to other production companies, of which there are several in Atlanta. Perry has a movie distribution deal with Lionsgate and at the very least Oprah Winfrey will air any TV show that his company is associated with also.Report

    Reply
  16. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch atlman
    “particularly since the State of California is trying to lure the film studios back”
    That will hurt the Shannon Mall project but not Lakewood, Perry or OFS. Lakewood and OFS are going to be “branch offices” or “regional offices”, if you will, of very large media companies. They aren’t going to spend hundreds of millions to build those facilities and let them sit idle. Also, movie projects are in the pipeline for years. It can take up to 10 years to get an original project from the drawing board to the screen (sequels obviously move a lot faster). So the financing for the initial round of projects for these studios are already in place. California’s tax incentives will only affect projects years out. 
    “I doubt Tyler Perry will have more than one project.” 
    And you base this on what exactly? Wishful thinking maybe? Here is the deal: Perry doesn’t even need to develop his own personal projects anymore. Perry’s company has started developing projects for other producers and directors. Perry will also be able to lease his studio space to other production companies, of which there are several in Atlanta. Perry has a movie distribution deal with Lionsgate and at the very least Oprah Winfrey will air any TV show that his company is associated with also.Report

    Reply
  17. Burroughston Broch says:

    @atlman I have no skin in this game at this time. I roll my eyes every time someone like you tries to chat up multiple pie-in-the-sky projects as the greatest things since sliced bread. What’s your skin in the game, other than as a Kasim Reed booster?Report

    Reply
  18. Burroughston Broch says:

    @atlman I have no skin in this game at this time. I roll my eyes every time someone like you tries to chat up multiple pie-in-the-sky projects as the greatest things since sliced bread. What’s your skin in the game, other than as a Kasim Reed booster?Report

    Reply
  19. Jason says:

    maria, lived in one of the neighborhoods next to fort mac for over six years and watched the “development” of this area go no where. I like the visionary thought you put forward but can you explain why the original plans never took off? If your plan has legs then yes it could be good, but if it means the property will just remain vacant for the next ten years…that isn’t good for Atlanta either…Report

    Reply
  20. Jason says:

    maria, lived in one of the neighborhoods next to fort mac for over six years and watched the “development” of this area go no where. I like the visionary thought you put forward but can you explain why the original plans never took off? If your plan has legs then yes it could be good, but if it means the property will just remain vacant for the next ten years…that isn’t good for Atlanta either…Report

    Reply

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