The former General Motors assembly plant in Doraville could be redeveloped into a business and residential district, but developers are trying to persuade the DeKalb County school system to provide tax financing. KENT D. JOHNSON/ KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

DeKalb leaders discuss moving GM site project beyond objections

Georgia’s top economic recruiter told DeKalb County leaders Thursday to repair the county’s image and support redevelopment of the former General Motors factory in Doraville, a project that could bring thousands of jobs to the region.

Remarks by state economic development chief Chris Carr underscored the mounting pressure on the DeKalb school board to take part in a tax incentive plan developers say is critical to creating a new downtown for a city decimated by the auto plant’s closure in 2008.

He warned that the effort to upgrade the site could fail without the school district’s support for infrastructure improvements, including a street grid and pedestrian connections to MARTA.

“We have an opportunity in our county to have the best site in metro Atlanta — probably one of the best sites in the Southeast — and we’re on the verge of blowing it,” Carr said during a meeting with a dozen DeKalb lawmakers.

Despite the pressure, DeKalb school board members say they haven’t been convinced the redevelopment would benefit students anytime soon.

The revitalization of the 165-acre Doraville site is one of metro Atlanta’s largest redevelopment efforts — even larger in size than the upgrade to Atlantic Station in Midtown.

The development team led by Atlanta’s Integral Group has proposed a corporate campus and a mix of retail, residences, parks and a movie studio at the site near I-285 and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.

The project, known as Assembly, is among the more ambitious development visions launched in metro Atlanta since the Great Recession, and developers have said they might have to scale back their plans or find other sources of funding for infrastructure if the school board doesn’t sign on.

Its construction depends on financing for the project that would use expected growth in property tax revenue to pay for $247 million in infrastructure improvements. School taxes would pay for more than half that amount, with the rest of the burden shared by DeKalb and Doraville governments, which have already approved their parts of the deal.

If the project is a success, all governments would benefit in the long run with more jobs, businesses and tax collections, proponents say. But school officials, who didn’t attend Thursday’s meeting, are not so sure.

“I have not seen a benefit to this point,” said DeKalb Board of Education Chairman Melvin Johnson in an interview this week. “My responsibility is to make a decision that would be in the best interest of students – not developers, not political interests.”

Eric Pinckney, the executive over the Assembly project for Integral Group, said his firm is “being patient” as local jurisdictions and the schools debate the project’s tax financing. Pinckney said his firm hasn’t engaged with the school board, letting DeKalb and Doraville officials take the lead on discussions, but he has been told productive conversations are happening.

MARTA connection is key

Previously, Pinckney has described public financing as “very critical” to the project’s success. Without the school board’s participation, he said last year, it could require the development team to try a smaller project.

Pinckney said the firm and its real estate brokers are moving “full speed ahead” marketing the site to potential corporate tenants and others.

But the lack of a deal between the three jurisdictions is taking a toll on the project. Pinckney said the connection from the site to MARTA is one of Assembly’s most expensive infrastructure needs, and lack of clarity about its funding has left the group unable to answer would-be tenants questions about when construction will start to connect the property to the Doraville station.

State Sen. Fran. Millar said during Thursday’s meeting that he hopes school officials understand that the project’s financing wouldn’t cost any existing tax dollars through the proposal, called a tax allocation district. TAD financing uses increases in tax collections generated by rising property values to repay bond refinancing for public infrastructure improvements.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for more jobs than we’ve seen in years in this county, and if we blow it, we blow it,” said Millar, R-Atlanta.

Though the school board and developers haven’t come close to striking a deal, Rep. Howard Mosby said there’s room for a compromise.

“We can negotiate a win-win for everyone,” said Mosby, D-Atlanta, the chairman of DeKalb’s legislative delegation. “We should be able to get to a place where there’s a meeting of minds.

Projects funded through TAD financing don’t always meet expectations.

Atlanta Public Schools and the city of Atlanta finalized an agreement this week that settled a long-running dispute over payments owed to the school system through a TAD. The city’s Beltline had been unable to make payments since 2013.

In Doraville, demolition is complete on the site and the film campus, known as Third Rail Studios, is underway. Integral sold outparcels on the site last year to car dealership giant Asbury Automotive.

“The TAD is the best option to get it done quickly and to get it done right,” said Doraville City Manager Shawn Gillen.

Gillen said discussions between the governments and the school board have been productive.

“They’re taking a slow, deliberative approach to this,” Gillen said. “It’s a big decision for them.”

Gillen said discussions involve providing the school board with financial flexibility under any agreement to deal with issues related to growing enrollment.

School board member Stan Jester, who supports the TAD, said he hopes his collegues reconsider their opposition to the redevelopment proposal.

“I am concerned that the students, teachers and taxpayers of DeKalb County will lose resources and revenue under other potential strategies that do not involve the school district,” Jester said.

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