Democratic candidates for president will take the debate stage Wednesday at Atlanta’s Tyler Perry Studios, and much likely will be made in the national press about Perry’s transformation of Fort McPherson into a thriving film hub.
Inside the gates, Perry has built a dozen giant sound stages and sets depicting a hotel, airport terminal, hospital and police station. If the candidates want to envision themselves sitting in the Oval Office, there’s a White House — built to 80% scale — a short walk from the debate stage.
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But outside Perry’s studio, tucked behind the walls of the old Army post, about 145 acres of Fort McPherson sits largely desolate and unused. Paint peels off the facades of aging buildings and weeds cover portions of forgotten roads.
It’s been eight years since Fort Mac closed. Though Perry remade 330 acres of the former Army post into largest film studio owned by an African American, much of the remaining land controlled by a government agency is a ghost town.
When the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority or Fort Mac LRA took control of the property in 2015, they promised to remove the walls and create a thriving mixed-use community.
Now, those promises seem even fainter.
The Fort Mac LRA announced in October it plans to buy out the contract of its master developer, meaning he soon could be paid millions to go away. A search for a new development leader is expected to start soon, marking at least the third major reboot for Fort Mac since the post closed in 2011.
The city of Atlanta, meanwhile, recently sent a letter demanding nearly $5 million it says the authority owes, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a lawsuit could soon follow if the bill isn’t paid. The authority argues it owes less than half that amount.
Khalil English, who lives about a mile from Fort Mac, said it seems like the public portion of the development is back to square one.
“I actually work in construction and I know how long it takes to get to a ground-breaking point,” said English.
The chairman of the Fort Mac LRA said the property’s future is bright. The agency, after months of internal turmoil, has a full board and a solid financial footing. The property, just minutes from downtown and the world’s busiest airport, is bordered by two MARTA stations. The Beltline is only about a mile to the north. A new U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab is planned in a former command building and will house 350 highly paid workers.
House flipping near Fort McPherson is again rampant, and after years in an economic deep freeze, the neighborhoods around the fort look primed for renaissance.
After Fort Mac LRA announced plans to buy out developer Stephen Macauley’s contract, authority Chairman Cassius Butts said he wanted the board to pick a new developer who can put shovels in the dirt sometime next year.
That hope doesn’t seem plausible to English. After two years with Macauley, Fort Mac LRA will have to start over to find a new partner and develop a new plan, which itself could take years to build.
“I’m not very confident in this at all,” said English, who liked some of Macauley’s plans.
Perry signals some interest
Fort Mac closed as part of a broader streamlining of the military, sucking thousands of jobs out of southwest Atlanta. The closure was an economic gut punch to a section of Atlanta still reeling from the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis.
Plans to turn Fort McPherson into a life sciences hub fizzled out and little happened there until then-Mayor Kasim Reed helped arranged a sale to Perry of 330 acres of the post in 2015.
While Perry built his sprawling movie campus, little has happened on the publicly owned land outside his gates.
In May 2017, Fort Mac LRA named Macauley as developer. He proposed retail, offices, hotels, and about 2,400 residential units, with most of the planned residences reserved at rents affordable to people who make less than the Atlanta area median income.
But that relationship soured this year with each side declaring the other in default of the development agreement. Macauley made a last-ditch effort to salvage a deal, but last month the authority announced plans to cut ties.
While talks fizzled between Macauley and the authority, the Bottoms’ administration engaged Perry about acquiring the remaining 145 acres.
But there was a sticking point. The authority had a competing deal to sell a key office known as the Forces Command, or FORSCOM, building to a separate developer for the future FDA lab. Perry wanted that building if he were to take on the overarching project.
In August, as the board prepared to vote on the FDA lab, Bottoms urged the authority in executive session to delay the deal and consider a counter-offer from Perry. But fearing a lawsuit, the board approved a $17 million sale to Easterly Government Services with only one dissenting vote.
The move upset Bottoms and Perry. Each accused the authority devaluing the remaining Fort Mac land by cutting off its most attractive asset — the FORSCOM building — from the rest of the project. Perry vowed never to do business with the authority again, and pledged a public-facing development on his land.
Bottoms: ‘We can dream…big’
In an interview last week with the AJC, Bottoms again criticized the FORSCOM sale.
“To the extent you are trying to spur interest in comprehensive redevelopment, I don’t think the way to do it is to put a federal building in the middle of prime real estate,” Bottoms said. “But that clearly fell on deaf ears.”
Bottoms said the Macauley proposal “was not a favorable deal for the taxpayers,” and said there were doubts about Macauley’s ability to finance his plans.
When she learned of Perry’s interest, she said it was her job as mayor to bring that interest to the attention of the Fort Mac board and vet it.
“It’s my hope he still has some interest,” said Bottoms, who encouraged the board to re-engage with Perry.
Perry, meanwhile, appears open to renewed talks. The FORSCOM sale “diminished” his interest, Perry said through a publicist.
“But because of my desire to support the community, I wouldn’t turn my back on having discussions with them regarding the additional land,” he said.
Butts, the Fort Mac LRA chairman, declined an interview request.
But in a statement, he said “The LRA remains committed to its core mission and welcomes the opportunity for sustainable partnerships with our internal and external stakeholders.”
Bottoms said she hopes relations between the city and Fort Mac LRA can be repaired.
“I think when you have raw land like that … I think we can dream really, really big,” Bottoms said.
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