Who’s tending the chicken coop? Atlanta activists question sale of public assets to private investors
By David Pendered
The question of who’s tending the public chicken coop is arising as Atlanta moves with all deliberate speed to promote private development around the Falcons stadium and several publicly owned properties in or near downtown Atlanta – including Fort McPherson, the shuttered Army base.
The general public isn’t alone in raising questions. Atlanta City Councilmember Joyce Sheperd made this comment about the potential sale of most of Fort McPherson to filmmaker Tyler Perry:
“I’m a little concerned about the fact that I first heard it on the news,” said Sheperd, who is a voting member of the state authority that oversees the conversion of Fort McPherson to civilian use.
Nonetheless, Atlanta officials and their partners are banking on the belief that these developments and others are imminent and need to be fast-tracked.
Invest Atlanta’s board is so hopeful that Underground Atlanta and the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center will be sold this year that it approved a budget that calls for 26 percent of its revenues for the upcoming fiscal year to come from proceeds related to those two sales.
The city’s development arm anticipates raising $2.24 million of its $8.42 million in projected revenues from proceeds related to the sale of the two properties, according to the budget adopted July 17.
Meantime, the state authority that oversees the conversion of Fort McPherson has announced a soft deadline of July 31 to conclude negotiations with agents of Tyler Perry so he can build a film studio. One of Perry’s attorneys reportedly worked a 23-hour shift to prepare documents for the authority’s consideration at its July 17 meeting.
Perry’s proposal is moving so quickly that West End civic advocate Kay Wallace coined a new term: The proposed deal is not a “public private partnership,” but rather a “public private piracy of the people’s property.”
Joining Wallace in expressing concerns over the city’s role in redevelopment were state Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas (D-Atlanta) and citizen activist Tillman Ward, of Vine City.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed responded to Thomas and Ward, who voiced their concerns about redevelopment of the stadium neighborhoods at Invest Atlanta’s July 17 board meeting. Moments before, the board voted to authorize $1.5 million from the Westside Tax Allocation District to buy derelict properties in the Westside district – presumably within the stadium neighborhoods. Wallace received no response from the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority.
Reed told Thomas:
- “My vision is for you to be involved in the Westside Future Fund, where the real energy is going to be. … Fifty-one grant applications [for redevelopment] are being processed right now. You are right on the mark when it comes to the westside.”
The Westside Future Fund has yet to be formally named and created. The mayor announced June 27 that such an entity will be created to guide redevelopment efforts on the westside of the city.
To Ward, who asked for westside neighborhood leaders to be included in planning for redevelopment, Reed said:
- “Help us draft what inclusion means to you. … That way, we wouldn’t be operating with what we believe inclusion is, but not what you believe inclusion is. We can spend time with that as we spend the next few years together [redeveloping stadium neighborhoods].”
Both Thomas and Ward left Invest Atlanta’s offices in the Georgia Pacific building with no definite “next steps” for the future inclusion.
Speaking to the Fort McPherson authority, also July 17, Wallace contended the number of public assets on the auction block is unprecedented and warrants close attention.
Wallace has participated in Atlanta affairs for more that two decades, including her executive level role preparing for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Wallace’s list of public properties of concern include:
- Civic Center – on the auction block;
- Turner Field – on the auction block;
- Underground Atlanta – on the auction block;
- Falcon Stadium – Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive closed at the bridge over a bridge near Northside Drive; Atlanta and Friendship Baptist Church are partners in the purchase of Morris Brown College, with the city putting up $10.6 million of the $14.6 million purchase price;
- Lakewood Fairgrounds – converted to a film studio that Wallace said imports more workers from outside the region than it hires locally;
- Fort McPherson – the authority is so anxious to do a deal with Perry that the authority’s original redevelopment plan, which was to build a bioscience research center with state funding, has been deep-sixed with no public comment.
“You approved a plan, and now you have a plan that is very different,” Wallace said. “I wonder what the process is. I wonder why there’s not an opening for people to come back and make proposals for their potential use of the property. Was that solicited by Mr. Perry? I would presume there were opportunities for others to bring their [proposals] forward.
“When people have to continually come back before the authority and ask if you are taking our concerns into account, either you are or you aren’t – but we don’t know,” Wallace said.
A lawsuit challenging the potential deal with Tyler Perry was filed July 17 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.
A joint partnership including Atlanta developer Egbert Perry and Ubiquitous Entertainment Studios LLC (UES) contend in the lawsuit that the Fort McPherson redevelopment authority (MILRA) summarily dismissed their offer in December 2013 to purchase the 488-site.
The authority said it could not entertain the offer because the Army still owns the property, according to the lawsuit:
- “On January 26, 2014, MILRA responded to UES’s offer of December 10, 2013 and indicated that they were not able to respond to or negotiate the offer of UES because they were not yet the title owner of the Ft. McPherson property but at such time that they became the property owner they would by public notice, inform not only UES but other interested parties in the purchase of land located within Ft. McPherson.”