The many lives of Lakewood: Movie studio is only the latest

Over the last 100 years, even as Atlanta’s borders swelled and its population exploded, the old Lakewood Fairgrounds escaped a sea of cement and a wave of condos and shopping centers.

Always, there were other ideas: a weekend getaway for the city’s elite, an agricultural fairground, a race track for horses, a race track for cars, a monthly antique market, a concert venue, a movie set, even housing for 1996 Olympics security personnel.

On the list of could-have-but-weren’ts: a Ford Mustang museum, a zoo, a city cemetery, a mixed-use development complete with its own charter school.

Indeed, a film studio planned for the old fairgrounds is the latest in a long line of ideas, schemes and plans laid out for the 110-acre parcel of land on Atlanta’s Southside.

On Monday, the city council welcomed the newest plan, approving a multi-million dollar, 50-year lease for the Lakewood Fairgrounds to be used as film studios and sound stages. EUE/Screen Gems will pay $250,000 per year in rent until it jumps to $600,000 per year in 10 years.

City leaders hope it will create more than 1,000 jobs.

“We think it has the potential to transform that area of Lakewood,” said John Lavelle, director of the City of Atlanta’s real estate portfolio. “It’s something development can occur around.”

In the late 19th century, the site, then the old city waterworks and reservoir, inspired a new idea to allow Atlantans to escape the city and dip their toes in the water. Streetcar barons, always happy to run a track and make some money, built lines from the city center to Lakewood Park, “one of the most pleasing and entertaining suburb resorts” where visitors could play tennis and croquet, dance in the pavilion or slide down the water “chutes.”

However, property managers squabbled with city officials over the $600-per-year rent, and the property went mostly dormant. Then, another idea emerged to create an agricultural fair. Supporters raised enough money to build Spanish Mission-style exhibition halls and secure a spot on the Grand Circuit of horse racing.

“New Lakewood soon to be a thing of reality,” the Atlanta Constitution headlined. Within a year, “the very best horses in America” were in Atlanta to compete for $24,000 in prizes. The amphitheater wasn’t quite Aaron’s Amphitheatre, the Live Nation concert venue that continues to operate at Lakewood, but a natural stage “similar to an inverted bowl half-filled with water,” the Constitution reported.

Fair organizers opened Larkland, a midway with food, games and 2,950-foot roller coaster with a 66-foot drop, “outclassed only by the one at Coney Island.” They named it the Greyhound for its grey cars.

In its first year, the fair drew more than 160,000 visits, and it continued on through the 1970s.

“It was a first-rate carnival; Six Flags is like a sissy compared to that roller coaster,” said Ed Spivia, a businessman who visited the fair in the 1960s and later became a lease-holder. “I can’t tell you how many people had stopped me and said, ‘This is where I met my wife,’ or ‘I got my first kiss here at the fairgrounds.’”

By the time the fair ended in the 1970s, Lakewood had another career for itself in a movie studio and tour, one inspired by Burt Reynolds, especially “Smokey and the Bandit,” which famously blew up the Greyhound for its sequel. Spivia said his company, Filmworks USA, signed a 50-year lease and headlines once again celebrated Lakewood’s future.

The problem, Spivia said, was a decline in Georgia’s movie business. Spivia instead converted the space into a monthly antique market that drew more than 1,000 dealers and 10,000 visitors each weekend it opened.

Still, there were more ideas.

In 2000, hip-hop producer Dallas Austin was in talks to make it into a music and video production mecca; the deal fell through.

Atlantic Station, an industry-turned-mixed-use success, led city leaders to buy back the lease from Spivia in 2006 and solicit developers’ proposals. Only one came in. The same year, the Atlanta Preservation Center placed the old Spanish-styled buildings on its list of most endangered historic places. Without a clear purpose, preservationists worried they’d fall into disrepair.

“They’re very significant and we felt they’re a real part of the city’s history,” said Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. “[Spanish Mission architecture] was a phenomenon that was prevalent in the city at one time. Now these are some of the few examples left in town.”

Lakewood could never shake its star potential.

Lavelle, the city’s real estate manager, said the location was bad for almost anything but films, which want quick access to the airport and downtown. The new EUE/Screen Gems will use about 30 acres. Sound stages around 40,000 square feet will be home to television, commercial, digital and film productions.

There aren’t any plans to seek tax breaks or grants for refurbishing the old Spanish Mission-style buildings, Lavelle said, but there aren’t plans to tear them down, either.

The oldest ones, which might have architectural problems, will likely be used for storage.

“[They] even remind you of Los Angeles and Hollywood,” said Spivia, who sits on the Georgia Film, Video & Music Advisory Commission.

After a long history and dozens of different lives, Screen Gems wants Lakewood to be an operating film studio.

New Lakewood, soon to be a thing of reality.