Porsche HQ: Catalyst for airport area?

Porsche’s new North American headquarters, which the company showed off to hundreds of guests Thursday, is in an area near the Atlanta airport that’s known more for vacant lots and job losses.

The question now is whether the shiny complex — complete with a “driver development track” for potential buyers and other paying customers — will draw more quality development or stand as a novelty.

The Porsche HQ is the most tangible success so far for backers of a years-old plan to create a bustling “aerotropolis” around Hartsfield-Jackson International.

The vision was spurred by the 2006 closure of a Ford auto plant just east of the airport, which left a gaping vacancy surrounded chiefly by highways and low-rent apartments.

The plant site is precisely where Porsche, formerly housed in Sandy Springs, chose to build its sleek new headquarters.

“We had this marvelous opportunity to have a piece of land directly related to the auto industry, next to the world’s busiest airport,” Detlev von Platen, CEO of Porsche Cars North America, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It’s Porsche’s largest-ever investment outside of Germany, with the United States representing the company’s most important market.

Von Platen said he believes his company’s arrival will help spur more development.

“I’m very confident that this aerotropolis concept will work here,” he said.

Porsche celebrated the new headquarters on Thursday with Gov. Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and other guests in attendance.

‘A showcase’ for state

The new facility is “going to be a showcase for Georgia,” Deal said.

Porsche expects to host 30,000 people a year at the complex, which includes a conference center as well as offices and the test track.

“You take the plane, land in Atlanta,” and be at the headquarters in minutes, von Platen said. Porsche already has a deal with Delta Air Lines to pick up elite frequent fliers with a Porsche on the tarmac and take them to connecting flights, a system von Platen said could be expanded.

The 1.6-mile driving track runs through the headquarters courtyard and is the first Porsche-owned track in the United States. Porsche envisions eventually inviting connecting travelers with long layovers to the “Porsche Experience” center while waiting for their next flight.

The carmaker also plans to offer driving sessions to the public at rates such as $300 for a 90-minute experience with a Porsche Boxster.

Porsche announced the move in 2011, with state and local incentives valued at about $14 million. The state incentives include $1.75 million in job tax credits and a $400,000 grant. It had expected to complete the facility by 2013, but developing both the building and track took longer than expected.

About 300 employees have moved from Sandy Springs to the new site, including some from other locations, and the company continues to hire, with plans for 450 employees at the building.

The idea of business development around an airport is familiar to Porsche executives in Germany, who have seen firsthand the development around hub airports in Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

Porsche joins the longtime headquarters of Delta and Chick-fil-A in the airport area, while Kroger is building a massive distribution facility at Fort Gillem in nearby Forest Park.

In addition to the 27 acres the headquarters and track sit on, Porsche owns another 30 acres adjacent to the property. Some have speculated it could be used to attract related businesses or other developments. Porsche would like to have a high-end hotel nearby.

‘Anchor for the area’

“There is real energy developing around the aerotropolis,” Reed said. Porsche is “an anchor for the area.”

Still, Porsche’s move is notable for going against the corporate grain. The area doesn’t offer the concentration of businesses and professional services of downtown, Midtown, Buckhead or the Perimeter area. Fellow carmaker Mercedes-Benz plans to locate its U.S. headquarters in Sandy Springs, though no test track is involved.

Von Platen said Porsche has committed itself to the concept.

“Personally, I believe in it,” von Platen said. “Our personal biggest challenge we had at the time was to ensure our employees would follow us.”

The company says other than regular turnover, 99 percent of employees have stayed with the company through the move. It is offering employee shuttles from the College Park MARTA station, and has discussed flexible work schedules.

Steve Berman, founder of OA Development, said the airport area is challenging. Since his company started buying business park buildings around the airport more than five years ago, “we’ve seen our occupancy plummet…. We’ve barely seen a recovery.”

But some see big opportunities.

“Most of the heavy, dense population is to the North,” said Shelley Lamar, Hartsfield-Jackson’s community affairs manager. In the airport area, “We have lots of land that’s either vacant or ripe for development.”

Chris Brown, regional senior vice president at Duke Realty, during a conference panel discussion this week on airport area development called the airport area “just horribly underdeveloped.”

The aerotropolis vision means decades from now, “you would see a Midtown South,” Brown said. “You have a leap of faith by people like Porsche. It feels like the beginning of it.”

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