DeKalb County’s newest city is spending millions to buy acres of abandoned retail properties, and has high hopes for converting them into attractive municipal buildings. But it remains uncertain what exactly will occupy all of that space.
The city of Stonecrest announced the purchases last month as part of a push to build a flourishing city center and increase the city’s presence around the mall. In early October, the city approved buying the old Sears facility at The Mall at Stonecrest for $2.1 million.
A few weeks later, another landmark purchase: $2.99 million for the massive building once occupied by a Sam’s Club. Officials have not yet decided how the city will finance that deal.
The city previously said that officials hope to turn the 157,000-square foot Sears building into a public safety center, housing police units and the municipal court. Mayor Jason Lary said in a press release at the time that he expected the facility to become a functioning precinct for the DeKalb County Police Department by next summer. But he acknowledged this week that that’s an unrealistic possibility.
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that there have only been preliminary talks about a possible move.
“We’re open to that discussion, and to do what we can do to make sure the people are safe and protected all over DeKalb County,” Thurmond said after a recent Board of Commissioners meeting. “There’s been no formalized discussion and/or agreement.”
The police department’s east precinct is currently located about two miles north of the mall in the city of Lithonia; 125 officers and staff are based there. DeKalb has a 10-year agreement with Stonecrest to provide police services to the city’s 54,000 residents. But Lary said the city has a two-year opt-out option if Stonecrest wants to start up its own force.
He remains confident the city can work out a deal with DeKalb to move officers into the refurbished Sears building, which was purchased using SPLOST funds.
“At the end of the day, everyone wants the citizens covered,” the mayor said. “We’re much stronger together than we are separate.”
Across the street from the mall on Turner Hill Road, Lary hopes to turn a 18-acre property that used to house a Sam’s Club into a true “city center” for Stonecrest.
The city plans to move City Hall into the 141,000-square-foot facility, which would house Stonecrest’s administrative departments. As for the City Council chambers, Lary said he hopes to oversee the construction of a production studio with a live audience — the kind used by daytime talk show hosts like Wendy Williams. Production companies could use it during the day, and it could be converted into meeting space for the council at night, the mayor said. Lary, who was recently re-elected to a full four-year term, said it’s too early to say when the city might move into the new complex.
City Hall will only take up about 25% of the building; Stonecrest plans to lease out the rest of the space. Lary hopes the U.S. Postal Service will open a location there. He also said a Topgolf-style company could occupy space at the back of the facility.
“Stonecrest is an entrepreneurial city,” Economic Development Director Clarence Boone recently told local business leaders. He discussed the future “opportunities” for the city at the Sam’s Club building. “If you look at the growth in the city, what the projections are going to be and where we see the future of the city, it’s all based on entrepreneurship.”
The purchase also comes with a plethora of refrigeration equipment that Sam’s Club left behind, Lary said. The city wants to lure a major grocery chain like Whole Foods or Sprouts to another location in Stonecrest, and donate the fridge units as an incentive.
Lary said he doesn’t see it as a risk to put taxpayer dollars toward the multimillion-dollar purchases with so many uncertain variables.
“We’re really excited about all the potential stuff we’re going to be doing,” he said. “I know what money is coming in. … Being able to deliver on those promises is not a problem at all.”
On top of the nearly $3 million Sam’s Club property purchase, Lary said the city budgeted $1 million to renovate the building. The City Council approved sending $235,000 in earnest money to Walmart Inc., which owns Sam’s Club. The retail giant abruptly shut down the location in early 2018, part of a wave of nationwide closures.
City officials have not yet decided how they will pay for the mammoth property. Lary said they could pay for the project through the Georgia Municipal Association’s financing program, or with SPLOST funds. Or it could fund the purchase directly through a bank.
Lary said the cost for the Sam’s Club building will end up being about the same as the city’s current monthly rent for City Hall space, which is $20,000. Since it was formed in 2017, the city has leased part of an office building near the mall that it shares with Strayer University.
Other cities across metro Atlanta have bought and moved into new municipal buildings in recent years. Those facilities were smaller in size than Stonecrest’s new acquisition and designed to only hold council chambers and city departments. But also notable, some were more expensive, according to AJC archives.
Dunwoody paid about $8.25 million for a 45,000-square-foot property on Ashford Dunwoody Road in 2016. Earlier this year, the city of Johns Creek approved $24 million to fund a project to consolidate its City Hall and other departments. Canton, which has about half the population of Stonecrest, purchased an old high school that sits on 1.8 acres for $2.5 million last year.
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