Clayton County’s big dreams struggle against economic realities



Controversy with ‘The Roman’ has overshadowed successes attracting jobs and investment

When Clayton County’s development authority endorsed The Roman, a proposed $800 million mixed-use development in tiny Lake City, the agency’s executive director said he was trying to think big.

Despite being the home of the world’s busiest airport, Clayton County has failed to attract the destination hotels, restaurants and must-do draws like the Atlanta Beltline that are helping bring rapid development to the north side of the metro area.

So when a little-known developer came knocking with a plan to build a 7,500-seat amphitheater and high-rise offices, a luxury hotel and condos, Clayton leaders were ready to listen, Invest Clayton Executive Director Larry Vincent said. Invest Clayton provided 26 acres of land under a half-century lease at $10 per year, and the county commission inked a deal for developer Roman United to build a $4 million taxpayer-funded small business incubator.

“That’s why the (Clayton County Board of Commissioners) signed off on it and my board signed off on it and why I signed off on it,” Vincent said of the contract with Roman United. “They were ready to put a pin down and pivot to do something wonderful in Clayton County.”

A desire to woo a megawatt project might have been tantalizing for Clayton leaders. But since the August groundbreaking for The Roman, a rift has emerged between Invest Clayton, the county’s independent economic development arm, and county commissioners.

County lawyers want to know how Roman United has spent $559,000 granted for design and architectural studies for the incubator.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation published online Friday also uncovered red flags Invest Clayton and the county missed in vetting the project, including that a representative for foreign investors purportedly backing the project is a twice-convicted felon who spent a year in prison for charges including conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Credit: Courtesy Roman United, Yamasaki and Bad Consult

Credit: Courtesy Roman United, Yamasaki and Bad Consult

Clayton leaders pointed fingers at each other about analyzing the deal.

An AJC investigation last year found Jacques Roman, the leader of Roman United, had a recent eviction and embellished his development experience on his website. Misattributed photos on his company’s online portfolio have since been taken down.

Clayton residents said they saw the problems with The Roman coming.

“When someone is responding to an (request for proposal), you should have been asking those questions,” said Clayton Democratic strategist Pat Pullar. “You should have a financial statement from a CPA, your work background and verifiable developments that you have already developed. Not stock pictures from the Internet.”

Clayton wins overshadowed

Southside rivals like Henry and Fayette counties have seen more robust growth in recent years.

Fayetteville boasts Trilith Studios, home of Marvel and DC studio films, and Town at Trilith, a 235-acre mixed use development. The project, backed in part by billionaire Chick-fil-A Chairman Dan Cathy, features high-end homes that cost as much as $1 million, unique restaurants, trails and a health and wellness center.

Henry County’s Stockbridge Amphitheater has become an important outdoor music destination for south metro residents.

Clayton County, however, has struggled to get its footing. Instead of being known for the charm of downtown Jonesboro or the celebrated Spivey Hall at Clayton State University, Clayton is associated with the brief loss of its school system’s accreditation in 2008 and Victor Hill, the county’s longtime controversial sheriff who was convicted in October and sentenced to prison for violating the civil rights of Clayton jail detainees.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Controversy with The Roman has further overshadowed successes Clayton has had with logistics firms and efforts the board of commissioners have taken to make Clayton more appealing to developers and businesses.

At the recent South Metro Development Conference, Vincent spoke about the multiple warehouse projects under construction in his county, including a 700,000-square-foot logistics park by OA Development.

He said those projects will create jobs and help lower the county’s unemployment rate, which lags other metro Atlanta counties.

In recent months, county commissioners also have projected a less than stable image. Instead of focusing on Clayton development, they bicker at commission meetings over personal slights.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that’s not a good look,” Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said of infighting on the board. “But that’s factual and what’s happening.”

And residents bemoan the cheap housing and low-quality apartments they say make Clayton less appealing to marquee developers.

“You don’t have anybody here to come up with an economic development plan,” said resident Marla Kendall-Thompson, who faulted most of the county’s issues on its leaders. “They just go by the seat of their pants.”

Erica Rocker, economic development officer for Clayton’s county-run economic development office, pushed back. Clayton’s past efforts at stimulating its economic development were not aggressive, but Rocker said it is changing. She said the county has hired nationally known Retail Strategies Group to pitch Clayton to restaurant groups and retailers that may never have had the county on their radar.

Rocker, who works for the board of commissioners and not Invest Clayton, said her economic development team is in the room more when the state is recruiting businesses to Georgia. That visibility will pay dividends, but it will take time, she said.

“It takes years of disinvestment to have some of the challenges that our county has,” she said. “The decline didn’t happen overnight.”

Observers said some Clayton leaders may have rushed to support The Roman, because the county wants to broaden its business base beyond logistics, its bread and butter. Distribution centers from Amazon, Kroger, toilet giant Toto, food service provider NewRest and airline textile maker Fellfab have brought thousands of jobs to Clayton.

But that desire to go into a new direction may have blinded county leaders to the Roman’s viability.

“It’s always risky when you have a community that is dependent on one or two industries,” Kennesaw State University economist Roger Tutterow said.

During the recent Southside development conference, The Roman wasn’t even mentioned, despite it being by-far the largest active project in the county.

Michael Hightower launched the annual conference in 2003 and it’s become the de facto yearly gathering for southside economic development leaders. He said communities south of I-20 are hungry for diversity in portfolios that have long been lopsided. That means a project may come with some risk.

But it doesn’t relieve leaders from doing very rigorous vetting.

“In any development, especially in a development that has significant amount of land value and a higher-end development value, it’s critical that due diligence is done,” he said.