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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.