Sale of film studio raises questions in DeKalb

Blackhall Studios sold; county unclear on potential impact for land swap property
Blackhall Studios in DeKalb County.

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Blackhall Studios in DeKalb County.

Credit: contributed

The founder of Blackhall Studios and representatives from the private equity firm that recently purchased it say they remain committed to DeKalb County and will fulfill previously made promises.

County officials, meanwhile, say they were left in the dark — and are trying to figure out what the sale means for the land swap with Blackhall that it approved earlier this year.

“The county had no prior knowledge of this reported sale and to date does not have any concrete information to understand the contours of this new transaction or how it affects” the land swap, a statement provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said.

Since the county has no facts upon which to analyze the situation, the county attorney will seek to obtain the sales documents from the various parties, so that the county may know the facts and accurately analyze the effect of this reported sale.”

Blackhall, which opened in southwestern DeKalb County in 2017, announced last week its sale to a Los Angeles-based firm called Commonwealth Group. The news came about two months after the film studio shared plans for a dramatic 155-acre expansion at its existing campus near Bouldercrest Road and I-285.

Peter Rumbold, managing director of real estate for Commonwealth, said Tuesday the expansion will still move forward. The firm was already affiliated with the film studio’s development arm, and was involved in seeking permits for construction on the larger campus even before the sale.

“We are also equally excited to develop and expand upon community partnerships, including for planned internships, job training and other enrichment programs,” Rumbold said in an emailed statement provided to the AJC.

Such programs and community involvement were previously promised by Blackhall CEO Ryan Millsap.

Millsap also led the charge for a land swap in which Blackhall received 40 acres of DeKalb’s existing Intrenchment Creek Park. That property sits just north of the studio’s existing campus and, while it has been pitched as the site of future expansion, it remains under Millsap’s control and is not part of the development efforts now being led by Commonwealth Group.

In exchange for the park land it sent to Blackhall, DeKalb County received about 53 acres of nearby property. The county plans to build a new park with better amenities. Millsap previously committed $1.6 million in in-kind donations to help make that happen.

That commitment is included in contracts approved by Blackhall and the county in February, officials said. But the path forward remained murky, even after Millsap briefly joined a Tuesday morning county commission meeting by phone.

“I think the main thing was, everybody wanted to make sure there wasn’t any wavering commitment on the land swap land,” Millsap said. “Which there is not.”

He did not provide any more specifics.

Southwest DeKalb Neighborhood Association president Alison Clark and Cedar Grove Neighborhood Association president Pat Culp supported the land swap. In a joint statement provided to the AJC, they said they were surprised by the sale of Blackhall but were confident that Millsap would “stand by his commitments to the community.”

“As for the new park and the land exchange, we know many community members are concerned that the deal will not come to fruition,” Clark and Culp said. “However, community leaders remain confident as the conditions of that agreement have in fact been formalized.”

The situation could be further complicated by a lawsuit challenging the legality of the land swap itself. The South River Watershed Alliance and the South River Forest Coalition filed the suit in February, saying the swap amounted to “an unlawful conversion of public park land to private uses and a waste of taxpayer money.”

Jacqueline Echols is president of the SRWA.

“This swap has always been about enriching a private developer at the expense of DeKalb taxpayers and the natural environment,” she said this week. “What we see now has been obvious from the beginning of this travesty. I’m amazed that anyone is even the least bit surprised.”

The film studio’s current expansion plans call for adding 1.2 million square feet of soundstage facilities, which officials said would make it the largest soundstage campus in Georgia.

Commonwealth officials expect the project to cost more than $250 million and projected it to generate nearly 5,900 jobs.

DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson supported the land swap because of Blackhall’s promise to bring jobs and new economic development to his often overlooked part of the county. Like others, he said he was surprised by the recent sale but encouraged that Commonwealth had already been involved with the studio’s expansion plans.

“These folks have stated publicly their commitment and are doing a lot of due diligence on the land,” Johnson said, “so I have to remain optimistic.”

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