Atlanta City Council passes police, fire training center proposal

The Atlanta City Council gave the green light Wednesday night to the construction of a new police and fire training center on forested land that was once home to the old Atlanta prison farm, signing off on a controversial proposal that has engulfed City Hall for weeks.

The 10-4 vote followed months of delays and debate on the plan, which involves leasing 85 acres of city-owned land to the Atlanta Police Foundation where the new center will be built, located just east of city limits in DeKalb County.

The vote was scheduled for Tuesday but was pushed to Wednesday so the council could hear over 1,000 comments called in by residents, totaling 17 hours. While the majority of the comments urged the council to vote against the plan, many said a new training center is necessary to combat concerns about crime. Opponents want to see the land preserved as greenspace and worry the development would disturb nearby neighborhoods.

Councilmembers Michael Julian Bond, Andrea Boone, Andre Dickens, Dustin Hillis, J.P. Matzigkeit, Marci Collier Overstreet, Joyce Sheperd, Howard Shook, Matt Westmoreland and Cleta Winslow voted in favor of the proposal. Natalyn Archibong, Antonio Brown, Jennifer Ide and Carla Smith voted against it.

The site of the proposed training center in unincorporated DeKalb County. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“You can’t fix or overlook bad process, and there was just incredibly bad process here,” Ide said before the vote. “I think that we have not given enough attention to the environmental aspect of this. I don’t think we’ve given enough attention to our sister government in DeKalb County.”

According to initial plans, the $90-million center is set to feature state-of-the-art training sites, including a mock village, an emergency vehicle driving course, firing range, an area for explosives training, stables for police horses, and a “burn building” for firefighters to practice putting out blazes.

With the proposal passed, next steps include conducting environmental studies on the area and convening a work group with business and community stakeholders. Officials have not said when construction could start.

Protestors march in opposition to the proposed training center. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Police foundation CEO Dave Wilkinson said in a statement that the council’s approval of the proposal “promises to be the most impactful legislation in support of public safety that our city has passed in a half-century.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement late Wednesday that the facility “will not only help boost morale, retention and recruitment of our public safety personnel, but will give us physical space to ensure that our officers and firefighters are receiving 21st century training, rooted in respect and regard for the communities they serve.

Archibong sought to table the proposal before the vote, but the motion failed 10 to 4. Councilwoman Jennifer Ide’s motion to push the effective date of the lease back to next January failed by the same margin.

“We now see the manifestation of what happens when the government … moves ahead of the population that is trusting them to keep them engaged,” Archibong said before the vote. “This facility will not be built for another couple of years. To conflate the issue of building this facility with an automatic reduction in crime is irresponsible.”

Drawings of the development were made public in April, and the lease agreement was introduced in the City Council in June by Sheperd. But a final vote on the ordinance was delayed after officials said they wanted to gather more input from the public and make some amendments to the proposal. Several council members said the police foundation did not provide enough opportunity for the public to learn about and comment on the plan.

In the final days before the vote, opposition to the plan included protests, petitions and pleas for the city to incorporate more community input. The afternoon before the vote Wednesday, #StopCopCity was trending on Twitter in Atlanta, referencing the nickname “Cop City” that activists have given to the project.

As councilmembers discussed the specifics of the plan Wednesday night, protesters gathered outside Archibong’s home. Atlanta police arrested 12 people who were charged with being a pedestrian in the roadway, a department spokeswoman said. They were taken to the city’s jail.

Gov. Brian Kemp was among the supporters of the plan, and in a letter to the council Wednesday, he highlighted the need for trained first responders to address the city’s crime.

“Increasing training and support for public safety personnel has united all sides of the political spectrum here in the Peach State in the past ... Our capital city and surrounding metropolitan area are facing a crime crisis,” Kemp wrote.

Shehza Anjum, an organizer with youth climate group Sunrise Movement, said she was disappointed with the process, which she said was flawed from the start.

“We’re at this juncture where yes, the vote didn’t go the way that we wanted to, but also, we have built this community and we have activated this community of people who care about this issue and are not going to stop talking about it. We’re not going anywhere,” Anjum said Wednesday night.

Alison Clark, the president of the homeowners association in Boulder Walk, one of the neighborhoods adjacent to the site, wrote to the council Tuesday expressing her support for the project. While some other nearby residents have come out against the project, Clark said the facility “has the potential to be a great asset.”

Several amendments were made to the ordinance ahead of the vote, including language that provided more specifics on the community advisory group and strengthened the environmental protection portions of the agreement.

The $90 million facility would be funded through a combination of city, police foundation and philanthropic dollars. The city would contribute $30 million through a $1-million-per-year lease beginning in 2024 or through a general obligation bond, the police foundation said.

Cox Enterprises President and CEO Alex Taylor, who chairs the Atlanta Committee for Progress, is leading a campaign to raise private funds for the project. Cox Enterprises owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.