Tyler Perry has heard the chatter that his movie studio plans for Fort McPherson were made in secret, upending years of planning for a technology park, a mixed-use community, green space and services for folks at risk of homelessness.
And that after decades of being cut off from the Army post by walls and barbed wire, surrounding neighborhoods fear further isolation. That residents worry he’ll replace a fort with a fort.
On Friday, Perry did his best to soothe the angst residents have raised since news broke he plans to buy most of the post and turn it into a mammoth film studio. His comments came moments after a civilian board announced it had reached a deal to sell 330 acres to the filmmaker for $30 million.
“It is very important the community knows that what I’m doing here is not shutting them out,” he said Friday to a packed room at a meeting of the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority.
Perry said he envisions a film studio that offers tours to “inspire and uplift” young people. He repeated his well-known rags-to-riches story, how he came to this part of town from New Orleans in the 1990s, and rose from a struggling playwright to writing, directing and producing his own films and TV shows.
“It would be foolish for me to come to my own people and sit among them and shut them out” and make them feel unworthy, he said, “when it is that people, my people, who helped me get in this position.” He agreed to residents’ requests to attend community meetings.
Perry is best known as the creator and actor behind the “Madea” film franchise. He now has a lucrative production partnership with billionaire Oprah Winfrey and her television network.
Under the terms of the agreement, Perry will build a campus in the center of the post with up to 16 soundstages — about three times what he has at his current campus near Greenbriar Mall — and relocate 350 jobs. Authority leaders said the new development will bring an estimated 8,000 new jobs. That figure includes temporary construction jobs as well as film production, administrative and executive positions, according to the city.
The redevelopment agency will keep 144 acres, about the size of Atlantic Station, for future development. The walls that surround the post will come down along Campbellton Road and Lee Street. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will keep its land on the post.
The MILRA board voted 8 to 1 to sign an agreement with Perry. Boardmember Ayesha Khanna voted against the project and called for the authority to update its economic development goals with community input.
Some residents applauded the Perry plan Friday, but others are fearful of what happens next.
Hilton Joseph, who represents Community Advanced Practice Nurses, said his organization has been left out of the loop after years of planning. The nurses group, which provides medical services to homeless women and children, was long ago approved by federal authorities to operate a clinic on site.
“Nothing has been said to any of us. It looks like they’ve done a deal without any consideration for the community,” Joseph said.
His group has retained the King & Spalding law firm to pursue legal action if necessary, he said.
Felker Ward, chairman of the MILRA board, said the authority will honor its legal obligations to the homeless.
Joseph was only slightly comforted. “They say there is a contingency for the homeless, but I doubt it,” he said. “I feel a little better, but not entirely.”
Joseph joined residents who say public officials and the authority have shut out community input. A day earlier, a group of residents and state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, held a press conference to denounce the Perry plans and ask for transparency.
Reed refuted claims the community was shut out Friday.
“You have community members committed to the entire process,” he said, then adding that real estate deals require a level of confidentiality.
The mayor, who walked into Friday’s meeting with Perry, thanked the residents for their years of planning. But he repeated that despite those plans, Fort McPherson has had few interested buyers.
Reed began talks with Perry months ago after the filmmaker called him to say he was leaving Atlanta to build a home and studio in Douglas County.
The mayor has long said a motion picture studio at Fort McPherson will be a boon to Georgia’s fast-growing prominence in the film industry. He said the proposed studio will anchor redevelopment in south Atlanta.
“I believe we are making a decision that is going to strengthen this community in a profound and deep way,” he said.
Speaking to the board Friday, Fort criticized MILRA for not negotiating a clear agreement with Perry over affordable housing, workforce development or other community benefits. And he questioned how many of the claimed 8,000 new jobs will be available to local residents.
“You have those conversations with the community before the fact, not after the fact,” he said following the hearing.
The civilian authority hopes to close on the property by Oct. 15. Perry said he plans to begin construction on “October 15th-and-a-half” and complete the work within 18 months.
It’s unclear whether that date will be impacted by a lawsuit brought by another entertainment firm, Ubiquitous Entertainment Studios, challenging Perry’s plans for the site. The civilian authority and Perry have sought to dismiss the suit.
Fort McPherson closed in 2011 following the 2005 federal Base Realignment and Closure process to streamline the military.
The overarching goal of the authority and the Army in transferring control of the site is job creation, said Tom Lederle, chief of the Army BRAC office near Washington, D.C.
A movie studio would fit the broad economic development and environmental impact guidelines set forth by the military, he said.
“It’s not unusual for the actual execution to look different from original plan,” Lederle said.
Agreements made with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development related to homeless assistance, however, must be honored, Lederle said. But MILRA and service providers could agree to move their programs to alternative sites.
Lederle said an economic development conveyance agreement, surveys of the property and payment terms must be completed before a transaction is final.
He described the October timeline to finish the deal as “very difficult, but it is possible and we will be working very hard to make that happen.”