By Maria Saporta
Tyler Perry’s plans to build a movie studio complex at Fort McPherson is proceeding after all.
In a dramatic on-again, off-again, on-again week that had all the elements of a staged performance, the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution and a map of the boundaries of the 330 acres that would be owned and controlled by Tyler Perry Studios and the 145 acres that would be owned by MILRA.
The unanimous vote was only made possible by a power move that was put in play less than 24 hours before by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to remove the board member who on August 8 had cast the only “No” vote against the Tyler Perry deal — Ayesha Khanna — one of the longest-serving members on the authority.
Based on recommendations from the mayor, the governor replaced Khanna with two board members who are close to Reed — former Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson and his past campaign manager – Meredith Lilly.
Khanna, who learned she was being replaced by a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution late Monday night before Tuesday’s specially-called meeting, came to the meeting anyway.
While authority members were meeting in a closed executive session, Khanna spoke with reporters saying the move to get her off the board “was a surprise to me:” She decided to attend the meeting because she felt this was a once-in-a-century opportunity for Atlanta and a pivotal moment for the authority.
“Tyler Perry is getting an incredible deal – paying $92,000 an acre,” Khanna said of his purchase of 330 acres of the pristine Fort McPherson for only $30 million. She added that it was critically important for the voice of the community to be represented on MILRA’s board and for the interests of the surrounding communities to be considered going forward.
“I will continue to stay engaged and committed as a citizen of Atlanta,” said Khanna, who is an executive with the national nonprofit – Hands on Network.
If Perry had been considering pulling out of the deal, it was because he was still jockeying for prime pieces of the property – especially how the boundaries were designed and how people would be able to enter the site. The deal may have been in danger when some of Perry’s demands were hard for the board to swallow, but pressure from the mayor’s office apparently softened the position of board members.
Brian Hooker, MILRA’s executive director, described the deal as “mutually agreed property boundaries.” The resolution also states other agreements between Tyler Perry Studios and MILRA, such as giving Perry the right of first refusal to buy any other property that MILRA puts up for sale and the right for MILRA to buy any excess property from Perry – at fair market prices. In other words, Perry could end up making money selling back land he’s getting at a discount back to MILRA for a premium.
Several issues still need to be resolved. The federal government requires that the transfer of property address solutions to house and support a specific number of formerly homeless citizens – either on site or at an agreed to off-site location. Khanna had been chairing that committee, and the board did not address who would be leading that effort in the future.
During the public comment portion after the vote, only one person spoke in favor of the Tyler Perry deal. Shalom Johnson, a resident from Oakland City Park, said: “Tyler Perry is best for this community and best for West End. I’m glad to see we are still negotiating.”
Others speakers questioned the lack of information that had been shared with the community, the lack of transparency on how decisions were made, the merits of the deal as well as the whole process that was followed.
Adair Park resident Matthew Garbett, who had been reading MILRA’s bylaws and enabling legislation, questioned whether several of the board members were in good standing because they had missed so many consecutive board meetings without being formally excused, which automatically threw them off the board. That meant their votes had not met the minimum requirements and were therefore invalid. He did not receive an answer.
Community leader Stephen Knight said he had long expressed his opposition to process of how the Tyler Perry deal came about.
“Now the only opposing voice on this committee suddenly is thrown to the curb,” Knight said. “Basically we have a board here that does the mayor’s bidding… This deal is being rushed through to help the mayor save face. I hope this deal does not work out.”
Steve Williams, a resident of Capitol View, was concerned that the historic portion of the Fort was going to be owned by Perry rather than by the public.
“Sounds like Perry is playing everybody,” Williams said.
When she went up to speak, Khanna said it was incumbent for the board to incorporate the community’s recommendations into its negotiations with Perry. She also said it was important to detail the number of jobs and economic benefits that would be generated by the studio. Other ideas she shared included to explore ways to benefit from the tax allocation district and the nearby BeltLine. Lastly, she urged the board to make sure it meets the federal requirements to serve the homeless population.
The last speaker was State Sen. Vincent Fort, who has been a constant thorn in MILRA’s side.
“The recent action with how this board has been redone has moved you from being compliant to being a nod squad,” Fort said, adding that the deal may have been close to falling apart because Perry was not getting all he wanted related to the boundaries. “We can’t give away the whole store. The message that has been sent by the replacement and addition of two board members is: ‘You better walk the line of what the mayor wants and what the governor wants.’”
Several issues still need to be worked on. When will the three-party sale between MILRA, the U.S. Army and Tyler Perry take place. Hooker said that is still unknown mainly because of issues that need to be resolved on the “Army side.”
Even though Tuesday’s vote was a major step forward in reviving what may have been a deal that may have been on life support, it still faces the possibility of federal litigation if the sale goes through – a move that could tie up the project for a long time. MILRA officials have acknowledged that Perry is anxious to get started because he’s bursting at the seams at his existing campus at Greenbriar.
And that’s one of many issues still hanging.
When asked whether MILRA would have any say so on how Perry develops his land, Hooker did not answer the question directly.
Some of the issues that could be part of future negotiations include whether there would be a special zoning overlay for the Fort McPherson property (for example, such zoning could stipulate as to whether Perry would be allowed to pave over the land for surface parking land or build structured parking to preserve green space); on whether there would be additional protection of the historic properties on the site; who would decide what kind of wall or fence would be allowed to be erected around the 330 acres; what kind of public access would be allowed along the roads that border Tyler Perry’s land; whether those roads also would have a big wall or fence along their edge; and whether Perry would open up the green space to the public for special events.
Those issues don’t even address how Tyler Perry Studios will interface with the dozen or more neighborhoods that are within a couple of miles from Fort McPherson
For someone who loves to tell the story of how he used to be homeless and how he used to live in his car, Tyler Perry now has a wonderful opportunity to give back to the communities that have helped him become the success he is today.