Emory Morsberger's business card refers to him as a "redeveloper." His company specializes in renovation projects such as downtown Lawrenceville and — according to plans — the upcoming rejuvenation of Atlanta's City Hall East into a live-work-play community.
Although he tackles old properties, Morsberger, 54, has an eye on the future. The Lilburn resident and former state legislator has been a leader in the effort to bring commuter rail to North Georgia. He recently sat for an interview in the mostly vacant City Hall East. Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for length.
Q: The economy has been rough. How has that affected your business and what is the status of the City Hall East?/?Ponce Park project?
A: Everything we're doing is redevelopment. The redevelopment of Lawrenceville. And this [City Hall East] is clearly redevelopment. It's saving a great historic building and turning it into something that will affect tens of thousands of people.
We have been working on the project for seven years. It has been a long haul and we've had very good cooperation with the city.
Q: Everything looks the same. Has the renovation started?
A: No. We are not supposed to close on this until toward the end of this year. ... We are still working on a lot of details as the economy has changed. I can't get into a huge amount of detail, but it's still alive and kicking.
Q: Do you see a turnaround in the economy coming?
A: It's just a matter of when. [However,] I see real estate continuing to decline. The residential market that crashed in the spring of '07 and has not yet hit bottom, is being replicated in the commercial field. That is going to follow pretty much the same trend, unless something dramatic happens. Most real estate people, including myself, have taken a lot of hits. There's a lot of real estate folks who have done great projects here in Atlanta who are taking a lot of shots right now.
Q: What do you mean by shots?
A: They're basically losing properties to banks and having tough discussions with creditors and with tenants. I think most people are basically hunkering down to weather the storm, and I'm in this group. There's nobody that's special right now in this market.
Q: You must have some satisfaction, even relief, that the Lawrenceville redevelopment got done when it did?
A: Lawrenceville is a great place that's booming. It's got Georgia Gwinnett College exploding with growth. It's got the hospital [Gwinnett Medical Center] exploding with growth.
Q: Do you see the climate for redevelopment in Gwinnett and other suburbs as different from Atlanta?
A: I see Atlanta being the shining star. The far-out parts of Gwinnett will suffer when the roads fill back up. It's pretty easy to get around town right now because there's about 15 percent less cars on the road [due to the economy]. But when the economy kicks back into gear, people are going to change the way that they want to live.
Q: What do you mean?
A: I don't think that Generation X is going to be willing to drive an hour into work. They're either going to take some kind of public transportation — hopefully commuter rail or some kind of variation of MARTA — or they're going to live close to where they work. That's going to affect future development patterns. I see places like this [City Hall East] being huge new nodes for employment, for entertainment and all kinds of different live-work-play uses.
Q: Can the traffic problem be viewed as a silver lining for Atlanta because it's prompting people to move back into the city?
A: Yes. People are moving into Atlanta and, as gas goes back up in price and as the roads become more congested, you will see more movement to employment centers. Gwinnett is working to become an employment center. But the Atlanta hub is going to be a huge draw.
Q: You've been deeply involved in the "Brain Train" (an Atlanta-to-Athens line). Is that a dead idea?
A: No. The Brain Train has morphed into Georgians for Passenger Rail and that is moving strong. They're working to get Georgia on track. Georgia received $87 million from the federal government eight or 10 years ago to begin the south line, and Georgia still has not done that.
Q: You mean the Lovejoy line?
A: It's called the Lovejoy line, but I don't like that term, because originally it was planned to go to Macon. But the longer you wait, $87 million gets you less and less distance.
Q: The Legislature hasn't seemed interested in supporting rail. What do you think?
A: Some of the legislators are interested. We've wasted a huge amount of time. Georgia has lost a lot of ground in the last seven years on water, education and transportation. When we had money we should have been spending money on those three key issues. The commuter rail thing should have gotten on track eight or 10 years ago, and was on track until 2002. I don't see anything happening there until we have some new leadership.
Q: Are you saying that Gov. Sonny Perdue (who was elected in 2002) threw it off track?
A: I'm saying they just had other priorities. And we are being bypassed by several other cities who are our primary competition, who are moving forward with modern transportation methods, something other than adding another lane on I-85.
Q: Why do you think things didn't get done in the last seven years?
A: I don't know. (Laughs.)
Q: Oh, you do.
A: One of my goals this year is to not say negative things about people.
Q: You're a former Republican member of the General Assembly. Who are you backing for governor?
A: I haven't decided yet.
Q: You're not contributing to any political campaigns this year?
A: No. I'm basically a broken-down developer who has not made a political contribution in two years. We are running very tight. And we plan to stay that way this year.
Got an idea for a Sunday Conversation subject? E-mail Tom Sabulis at email@example.com
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