New life for big development at Clayton State

Leaders say University Station will spur area economy, some residents have doubts

Timeline to University Station

1999-2000: Officials with Clayton County, Morrow and Lake City develop the Gateway Village Plan that included lofts, townhomes and retail as well as a hotel conference center with an 18-hole golf course. 2000-2002: Clayton development officials start to acquire about 100 acres along Ga. 54 for future development, and the Gateway Village Redevelopment Plan is created to be a vehicle for future projects.

2001: Clayton Place Apartments are built for Clayton State students.

2003-2005: Georgia Archives and National Archives southeastern branch relocate to their present site near Clayton State University.

2006-2008: The city of Morrow completes Morrow Station, 10 acres set aside for future transit needs. The site includes a parking deck, an on-street parking network and a spot for a future commuter rail stop.

2005-2008: As the economy tanks, Gateway Village plans are altered. The resort hotel is changed to a business-class hotel and plans for residences are shelved.

2011: Gateway Village strategic partners kick off an 18-month redevelopment plan calling for a marketing blitz and a new name, University Station. The plan calls for site preparation and an updated civic master plan.

2012: Clayton County acquires a former Ingles-anchored shopping center across from the archives and converts it into a film sound stage.

February 2013: The 18-month redevelopment plan is completed and organizers unveil the plan.

Source: Clayton County Office of Economic Development

Sweeping plans for a gateway to Clayton State University that were scuttled by a harsh recession are being reborn on a smaller scale that development officials say will still give Clayton County a much-needed economic jolt.

Where planners once called for a conference center hotel, golf course and townhomes, officials soon will pitch a new vision: a town center aimed at expanding the county’s burgeoning film industry, cultivating startup companies and cashing in on the cottage industry of amateur and professional ancestry research.

The site formerly called Gateway Village will be known as University Station, a planned mix of offices, parks, retail and lodging. County leaders are expected to introduce the concept Wednesday morning at the South Metro Development Outlook conference at the Georgia International Convention Center.

“When developers and investors start seeing the quality developments we want in Clayton County get started, that will hopefully bring more businesses and jobs,” Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said.

Some doubt that, and cite Olde Towne Morrow, a massive complex of shops, restaurants and offices near Southlake Mall that sits empty.

The county and cities of Morrow and Lake City will market about 10 acres to developers. Officials want an 80-room hotel, a three-story office building with space for economic development agencies and startup companies, refurbishments to a county-owned film sound stage and about 100,000 square feet for merchants and restaurants: about $75 million in private investment. Residential space and senior living facilities could be added later.

The hope is to spur additional private development along Jonesboro Road near the more than 6,500-student university.

Clayton’s jobless rate is about two points higher than the metro Atlanta average. It was stung early by the foreclosure crisis, the partial closure of Fort Gillem and a school accreditation scandal that clouded the county’s image, said Mercer University economist Roger Tutterow. The county needs to diversify, he said, and become less dependent on its leading driver, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Some skeptical citizens groups point to prior public-private development missteps in Clayton. But backers of the new University Station see a commercial real estate resurgence on the Southside, following investments including the Porsche North American headquarters complex.

The new town center will be near the sound stage in a vacated Ingles supermarket, near the state and national archives.

Clayton wants to promote it to film and TV companies. Productions including the upcoming "Scary Movie 5" and the sequel to "The Hunger Games" have raised the county's profile, said Grant Wainscott, director of the county's Office of Economic Development and entertainment agency.

Clayton State is filled with students and staff each day, and the National Archives branch is the genealogical research hub of the Southeast, attracting thousands of researchers each year, Wainscott said.

The county expects to fund about $5 million in infrastructure improvements, he said, including roadwork.

Development in the area started in the late 1990s with apartments and later included the National Archives at Atlanta and the Georgia Archives. The county also built a transit station and parking deck in anticipation of commuter rail that never came. Public and private investment in the corridor stands at more than $100 million.

Original plans for lofts, townhomes and a conference center hotel and golf course fizzled as the economy tumbled.

“The alleged recovery everyone’s talking about just hasn’t manifested itself in Clayton,” said Carl Swensson, chairman of the Clayton County Citizens Oversight Committee, a government watchdog group.

Swensson fears a fallout like that from Olde Towne Morrow, which has languished nearly two years despite efforts to revive it. A former city official, John Lampl II, awaits trial on charges he circumvented state building laws in that project.

But one critic of problems connected with Olde Towne Morrow praised the effort to revive the Clayton State corridor. While “there are some hurdles that are going to have to be taken care of and most of them are political,” community activist Jeff DeTar said, “I’m very optimistic about what is possible over there.”