Hartsfield-Jackson eyes airport area, Dawson property for development

For decades, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has been a major landowner in the metro region, with hundreds of acres around its airfield and two huge parcels farther north.

Now, the airport is looking for a real estate consultant to determine how to develop property around the airport and on the roughly 10,000 acres it owns in Dawson County.

But it has different plans for the 9,400 acres it owns in Paulding County.

The airport earlier this year invited firms to compete for a real estate consulting contract to come up with a plan for roughly 500 acres of land owned by the airport around the airfield, its property in Dawson County and its property in Paulding County.

“It’s land that we already own that has been sitting dormant for years,” said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Miguel Southwell.

But the airport subsequently canceled the earlier procurement process and started the process over again, this time seeking a real estate consultant to develop only the airport area and Dawson property.

The land around Hartsfield-Jackson is part of a vision for an “aerotropolis” — an urban development that emerges around an airport.

The Dawson property, which is close to the North Georgia Premium Outlets, is “just a really good location,” said airport real estate manager Lynn Smith.

As for the Paulding property. “we think that is sort of a special type of situation,” Southwell said. “Anything that’s done with that land has to be something that preserves the natural beauty of that land…. That’ll take much more time to understand.”

The city of Atlanta’s property in Paulding is part of a wildlife management area by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, as is the Dawson property.

The city bought the land in Paulding and Dawson back in the 1970s for possible sites for a second airport, though those sites were deemed to not be financially feasible in a 2011 study.

Southwell said he expects the Paulding property to be considered separately.

“Our current plan is to maintain it, especially as we face uncertain times in the future,” Southwell said. The airport depends on parking revenue as a key source of cash, for example, but the potential for self-driving cars and other technology could affect parking.

"We're really pressing to find ways to diversify revenue, because we have 30-year [bond] debt and therefore we need continuous streams of revenue," Southwell said. Hartsfield-Jackson also recently formed a division called ATL Business Ventures to do that and hired a new executive, Cortez Carter, to lead it.

Selling the land could bring an immediate windfall, “but you’ve lost the potential to generate revenues for the next 20-something years from that assets,” Southwell said. “So that’s why it’s not in the best interest of the airport to dispose of land but rather find ways of converting that land into continuous streams of revenue…. We just need to lease land instead of sell land.”

Right next to the city of Atlanta’s property in Paulding sits the Paulding airport, a general aviation airfield that now has aspirations to become much more, putting it at odds with the city of Atlanta.

The Paulding County Airport Authority wants to expand and attract airline service, which would create a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta. That could be seen as competition to Hartsfield-Jackson, and the city of Atlanta and hub carrier Delta Air Lines have vehemently opposed Paulding's move.

The city of Atlanta in 2007 sold 163 acres to Paulding County "in the interest of fostering partnership" as the county developed its general aviation airport. After Paulding in 2013 announced plans to commercialize its airport, the city of Atlanta took the legal position that the land it sold to Paulding cannot be used for a commercial airport. That is one of a number of legal disputes that have surrounded the Paulding airport commercialization plan.

“At the time when we sold the land, we didn’t see any impact on the future use of the airport,” Southwell said this week. “We still don’t see any impact at this point.”