VIDEO: 5 things to know about... the changing face of Henry County
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Can lure of Atlanta Motor Speedway help drive southside development?

Henry County has been one of metro Atlanta’s fastest growing areas for years, but the big splashy mixed-use developments that have followed growth in other communities have eluded it and most other south metro counties.

To change that, county leaders unveiled a plan this month to leverage one their most iconic landmarks with hopes of enticing a southside development to rival north Fulton’s Avalon, Cobb’s The Battery at SunTrust Park and Midtown’s Atlantic Station. Local officials want to market more than 6,000 acres near Hampton’s Atlanta Motor Speedway in hopes reshaping a large part of the county and creating metro Atlanta’s next big buzz project.

The Speedway area, officials insist, is a unique offering that if properly developed could bring luxury hotels, trendy retail and executive level-homes to a community crying out for more than strip malls and Waffle Houses.

“The goal would to be to have something like the Battery, (but) from the Speedway perspective,” says Henry Commissioner Dee Clemmons, one of the architects of the plan. “This would be our mega-site of the south.”

2/8/19 - Hampton - Land near the Atlanta Motor Speedway Airport is part of 6,000 acres Henry County has targeted for future development. This includes mixed-use developments such as retail, housing and industrial. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

If these ambitions are realized, it could reshape Henry and recast perceptions of the south metro area.With the exception of Pinewood Studios and Pinewood Forest in Fayetteville, marquee mixed-use developments that grab headlines and attract stores such as Apple and Whole Foods are few and far between south of downtown Atlanta.

While land is plentiful on the southside, the area’s proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, its criss-cross of interstates and less clogged roads have shaped its commercial identity. It is seen more as as a logistics hub for distribution centers and warehouses than a lifestyle or retail destination.

“When we think about the south side, you’ve got the airport as a dominant player,” said Roger Tutterow, an economist at Kennesaw State University. “We’ve tried to build out the Southern Crescent as having the concentration of logistics and wholesale trade. The good news is we have had success in that area. The other side of that is that activity is dominating.”

But Henry and southside officials said to box them into a single industry misses opportunities that could open up new avenues for economic growth for the entire metro area.

Atlanta Motor Speedway officials don’t currently have a plan for a mixed-use development, but they are intrigued by Henry’s interest in partnering with them. It wouldn’t be the first NASCAR facility to have a mixed-use development associated with the track. Daytona Beach saw the opening in December 2017 of a mixed-use development called One Daytona, which features shops, restaurants and hotels next to its famed racetrack.

“In our business, if somebody does something, all of us are right behind him looking at it to see how it’s going and how we can incorporate something similar,” Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark said.

North v. south

The derth of high-end development has been a gnaw on the southside for years and at times played into its politics.

The issue heavily influenced the debate last year that almost split Henry’s largest city. The group pushing to split away from Stockbridge and create a new city of Eagle’s Landing argued they needed the break to help lure better development. But the question hanging over the speedway plan or any other idea for major development is simple: Can the southside overcome demographic and population trends that lure commercial developers northward?

Experts say the differences in development patterns across the metro area is about numbers, not a lack of vision. The population north of downtown is more than twice that of communities south of the city, making it easier to sell to builders because of larger foot traffic for stores. Northside incomes also better match what retailers and homebuilders are looking for in mixed-use developments.

Additionally, office parks and technology corridors are more plentiful north of downtown. That allows hotels at places like The Battery at the Atlanta Braves development and Alpharetta’s Avalon, for instance, to have a diversity of customers instead of relying solely on sports crowds or shoppers.

“There is a very deep pool of corporate demand all up and down the Ga. 400 corridor and that has been driving business at the Hotel at Avalon,” said Mark Woodworth, senior managing director at CBRE Hotel’s Americas Research.

2/8/19 - Hampton - Daunte Gibbs, director of economic development for Henry County, poses for a portrait at the Atlanta Motor Speedway Airport in Hampton . Henry has targeted 6,000 acres near the airport for mixed-use developments such as retail, housing and industrial use. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Henry and south metro officials brush the naysayers aside. The area is ripe for development, they argue, precisely because north metro has been so successful. There are only so many more projects that can be squeezed into Sandy Springs or near the Mall of Georgia before traffic headaches steer development southward.

Henry also has competition for developer dollars. Backers of Airport City, a proposed 320-acre mixed-use development around Hartsfield, is looking for support to get their project off the ground. And leaders in Stockbridgeare attempting to jump start their 160-acre Jodeco South mixed-use development that was put on hold last year while the city fought the de-annexation of half of its residents and businesses.

“Competition is good,” Shannon James, who is supporting Airport City through the Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance, of which he is CEO and president. “It brings out the best in all of us. All that will do in my mind is allow us to step our games up.”

Marketing the 6,000 acres near the Speedway is partly a desire to get ahead of what Henry officials think will eventually come their way, said county economic director Daunte Gibbs. Henry is paying Atlanta-based Tunnell-Spangler & Associates $252,000 to create a master plan for the site, which is mostly rural farm land with a handful of subdivisions. The land stretches from I-75 west to unincorporated Hampton and Fayette County and south toward Spalding County.

Key to Henry’s plan is a yearning to avoid the hodgepodge development of the past, which has led to gridlock on some Henry roads during peak demand. Instead of more fast-food chains, nail salons or auto parts stores, leaders are focusing on the technology, film and professional services industries, as well as a possible convention center or arena.

What they don’t want: More million-square-foot logistics buildings.

“There is a provision for them, but we just don’t want this to be a warehouse distribution development,” Gibbs said. “We want more than that.”

Reframing south metro

Holding firm on that will be critical to the development’s success, said Rob Parker, president of Pinewood Forest in Fayetteville, the 235-acre residential and mixed-use project in Fayetteville. Pinewood Forest, which sits across the street from Marvel movies home Pinewood Studios, has fashioned itself as an urbanist community with chef-driven restaurants, a performing arts center and a boutique hotel. The master plan community eschews the copycat designs of most developments by focusing on the distinct rather than the common.

“Part of what we’re trying to do, and I think could certainly happen in Henry County, is reframing how people see south metro,” Parker said, “For people to see you differently, you literally have to be different. You can’t continue to do the same things.”

Henry leaders may be sold on their ideas for the land near the speedway, but residents said they want to hear a whole lot more before giving their blessing.

Stockbridge resident Janet Gordon said she wasn’t surprised the area is on the county’s radar. Because it’s sparsely developed, putting a smart growth plan in place is wise, she said.

Her only question was whether the speedway has enough business beyond its big NASCAR race each February to be a development draw.

“How busy is the racetrack?” she asked. “We need to know what’s going to happen with that before we start talking about development.”

2/8/19 - McDonough - Traffic is shown backed up around lunchtime at exit 216 off I-75, which intersects with Ga. 155 in Henry County in McDonough. Ga. 155 is Henry County’s distribution center corridor. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hampton resident Michael Rockholt said Henry County residents deserve to hear more about the proposal, especially those who would be most affected like he and his neighbors. Traffic is generally a nightmare when more than 100,000 people descend on the tiny Hamlet for the Atlanta Motor Speedway’s big NASCAR race of the year, he said. Residents should be informed if there is a desire to permanently put more cars on the area’s roads.

“Ga. 20 and Tara Boulevard are basically parking lots prior to and after the events,” he said after a recent Hampton City Council meeting. “Further development is bad. It could well be a headache.”

Clark, the speedway president, said the track is actually busy year-round. In addition to races, the track hosts concerts, car shows, air shows, corporate meetings, movie and television filming as well as a Christmas Lights driving tour.

“There was a time people thought of Atlanta Motor Speedway as simply a racetrack,” he said. “Over the past eight or 10 years, we’ve become much more of an entertainment complex.”

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