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Maggie Lee

Hollywood or public woods? Southwest DeKalb has a decision to make.

Maggie Lee
The Intrenchment Creek Trailhead is mainly wooded and quiet — some would rather see a park with more amenities, if the county will pay for them. Credit: Maggie Lee The Intrenchment Creek Trailhead is mainly wooded and quiet — some would rather see a park with more amenities, if the county will install them. Credit: Maggie Lee

By Maggie Lee

A movie and TV studio CEO is promising to bring some more sparkle to a sleepy section of metro Atlanta. But a group of critics say southwest DeKalb’s growing slice of Hollywood would cost the neighborhood their woods.

DeKalb County has a starring role, as it has to decide whether to pursue a land swap. The county would give up about 40 acres of mainly wooded park land along the South River Trail. The land would go to Blackhall Studios, where it could expand from its nearby locations.

In return, Blackhall would give the county 53 acres that are also right in the area, where the county’s talking about giving park patrons a new park with more amenities.

Jacqueline Echols, board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, speaks to the online meeting during public comment, calling out DeKalb for giving a pro-swap presentation. “Nothing is that perfect … there is no balance here, there is no serious public comment.”

Jacqueline Echols, board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, and a leader of the Stop the Swap campaign speaks to the online meeting during public comment. She called out out DeKalb for giving a pro-swap presentation. “Nothing is that perfect … there is no balance here, there is no serious public comment.” (Credit: Maggie Lee)

But local tree-lovers say the land the public would get in exchange is crummy and much of it is already scalped.

The latest act of a saga that’s been running for more than a year played out last week.

Scene I, Thursday evening, an online public meeting. Folks from county government painted a picture of a lovely new park along Bouldercrest Road just below McNair High School.

Land on both sides of Bouldercrest is owned by Blackhall now, but the county would get the land by trading away forested land and trails neighboring it on the south.

The new park would have lighted paths, a splash pad and huge playground. It would have a cost too, though no one mentioned who would spend what dollars.

The studio chairman and CEO, Ryan Millsap, has long sought the trade. He told the online audience that his planned studio expansion onto what’s now the wooded land would triple the number of people employed on productions at Blackhall to about 3,000.

In a conversation with SaportaReport the day before the meeting, Millsap said his studio is so busy that it’s turning away business.

“We are in serious need of our expansion, and frankly I have delayed the expansion to help the county because the county believes this is the best way to go,” Millsap said. “I’ve delayed the expansion for a year.”

Millsap said that he thinks protests are misguided and that he’s not trying to ramrod anything through the system.

Ryan Millsap, CEO of Blackhall Studios, says his stages are so busy, he’s turning away business. (File photo by Maria Saporta)

“More money will come to the community through development,” he said. “The tax base is increasing with all the development. There’s intelligent planning going on.”

Scene II opens with a chorus of 70 or so critics, gathered at South River Trail’s Intrenchment Creek Trailhead, and following the meeting via a computer screen and loudspeaker set up under a gazebo. They chant “Stop the swap, save our park.”

Damon Young arrived from his home up the street wearing a yellow-and-black striped shirt and got compliments on the pipe-cleaner black antenna on his head that made it into a bit of a bee costume. Maybe not surprisingly, he talked about the clean-air health benefits of living so near nature.

We “don’t want our children to get health problems,” Young said, with a young’un clinging around his waist.

The large trees and their roots help filter storm water before it can wash pollutants and dirt into the South River. Such a relatively large, intact forest is a place for people to get immersed in nature near home, he said.

“It hurts to think of what they want to trade it for,” Young said.

This chorus of critics trusts neither side, pointing out that DeKalb County has a crummy record of environmental stewardship on the nearby South River, and saying they have yet to see any written binding community benefits agreement that Blackhall would sign.

And off-camera are the stars of the prequel: The Trust for Public Land and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. TPL acquired the land with the support of the Blank Foundation some 20 years ago, and put a covenant on it: it has to remain green space.

Part of the reason those nonprofits targeted the parcels they did are the land’s so-called “environmental services:” that the soil and trees there contribute to keeping the air clean and especially to filtering water before it gets to the South River.

The covenant could be relaxed but TPL hasn’t come out pro or con on the proposed swap: they’ve laid out some conditions it would take to get their support, one of which is county engagement with the public .

If this were a Hollywood move, the green space beloved by the folks at the trail head meeting would remain intact. The county would build additions to it with all the playgrounds and lights that some residents say they want. And Blackhall would miraculously find some other direction to build and its productions would employ 2,000 locals at new, good union jobs.

But, alas, those Hollywood endings aren’t real.

The factors here will be more prosaic: pressure, tradeoffs, money, promises, contracts and maybe courts.

Since late 2018, the county’s been evaluating the proposal, and at some point, staff recommendations to be given to county CEO Michael Thurmond and the county commission.

Proposed land swap, all boundaries are approximate: Three parcels of land owned by Blackhall Studios (in orange) for part of DeKalb County’s green space near Intrenchment Creek. Gresham Park is shown on this map for context, but it is not part of the swap.

-Maria Saporta contributed to this report

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bridget Watson September 15, 2020 10:08 am

    Notice all the Blackhall properties have been scraped of trees. They clearcut 20+ acres to build their current complex. Expect more of the same.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    DecaturInvestor September 15, 2020 2:35 pm

    Please take the tour of Intrenchment Park. It’s a gorgeous piece of land. Then actually take a look at the property Blackhall wants to give to DeKalb. It’s not an equal swap. Not even close. I’m all for development, but there are opportunities for Blackhall to do this on other nearby land. Buy it like everyone else. Commissioner Larry Johnson is the one pushing and he has not been an advocate for Dekalb Parks & Rec so keep that in mind. Incoming Terry Terry won’t comment and has a mixed record on environmental concerns even though he worked for Sierra. This piece of land could become our Piedmont Park, we just need a DeKalb Board of Commission with a vision.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Joe Peery September 15, 2020 4:54 pm

    Well done, Maggie. This is the first story I’ve seen that lays out the whole picture, instead of the fairy tail that Blackhall and the County have been trying to sell. If they would simply have a real discourse with the public, instead of these dog and pony shows, then maybe we could get a deal that the citizens of Dekalb and fans of Intrenchment Creek Park deserve- a real vision, like the South River Forest.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Amy Stout September 20, 2020 6:52 pm

    Ted Terry is on record as saying he would approve the swap. I watched him say it in a candidate debate prior to his election. Actually all 3 candidates in the race said they would support the swap if they had to give an answer at that moment. It was unbelievable disappointing.Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Molly Coffee October 1, 2020 8:38 am

    As someone whose entire livelihood depends upon the film industry, I can unequivocally say that we need to #STOPTHESWAP. The neighborhood does not want this. And any way that Ryan Milsap tries to paint the trade, he does not speak for the film industry. He is a real estate developer. Let’s also be very clear, the percent of Dekalb residents that would be a part of these employment numbers being “created” by the trade would be very low and any expansion he is doing will be done with whatever land he ends up having because he will adapt to the growing need for stage space. And if Dekalb is worried that they may lose Blackhall in the process, they have nothing to worry about. Someone else will sweep in and buy the stage space because the bookings will continue to come with or without Ryan Milsap.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Shawn October 10, 2020 9:49 am

    Has anyone from the County and or Blackhall taken the time to talk with the guys at Atlanta RC Club? They have been there for atleast 40+ years and I noticed that the airfield has disappeared. Is the county going to relocate them? Whats the deal.Report

    Reply

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