WABE 90.1 – Closer Look: Deadline Approaches For DeKalb Schools Decision On GM Plant
A rendering of the redevelopment at the site of the former GM plant near I-285 and I-85.
Developers of the planned revitalization of the former GM plant in Doraville say they’ll have to look into revising their plans if they don’t get financing support from the DeKalb County School System.
DeKalb County School District’s superintendent and board chairman have not agreed to being part of a tax allocation district, which would help finance the infrastructure projects supporting the redevelopment, including pedestrian connections from the nearby MARTA station.
Developers say the deadline for that decision is June.
Rose Scott (Cohost of WABE 90.1 Closer Look)
We begin with a history lesson. In 2008, state law makers passed legislation which led to a referendum vote. On the ballot was a measure to authorize municipalities and boards of education to use tax funds for community redevelopment programs.
That was Georgia Amendment 2. It passed with 51% voting yes. This gave way to the legal possibility of Tax Allocation Districts or TADs being approved by Georgia school districts.
Martha Dalton (Cohost of WABE 90.1 Closer Look)
If you look around the metro area, you’ll see projects partially funded through TADs. Of course there is the Atlanta Beltline, the Westside TAD, Vine City park expansion and Atlantic Station.
It’s no secret TADs are used to spur development and developers don’t have to foot the project’s entire bill. But if a TAD is not approved by a school board, does the development suffer?
Rose Scott (Cohost of WABE 90.1 Closer Look)
That is one of the questions surrounding the drama that is the redevelopment of the old GM plant in Doraville, DeKalb County.
We’ve heard from school board chair, Dr. Melvin Johnson. They are not in favor of the TAD. Yesterday, we heard from DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester. The entire commission is on board with the TAD.
Today we are joined by the CEO of the developer, The Integral Group, Egbert Perry, and the project executive, Eric Pinckney.
Rose Scott (Cohost of WABE 90.1 Closer Look) – Mr. Perry, is The Assembly development in jeopardy at all in terms of the original plans?
Egbert Perry (CEO of The Integral Group) – Jeopardy is not the word I would use. The ability to carry out the vision the citizens and leadership of Doraville created, the ability to carry out that vision to its full potential is what’s at risk.
Rose Scott – Yesterday we heard from Nancy Jester. She said this could be nothing more than a strip mall if this isn’t fully funded with a TAD.
Egbert Perry – Yes, it could, but that is not our current plan. We didn’t do this so we could just build another strip mall or subdivision. The intention is to do something transformative. That requires an infrastructure to use the site to knit together the areas around it.
GM was somewhat isolated or balkanized inside of the city. This provides an opportunity to connect to the fabric of the surroundings.
Marth Dalton – If the school board decides not to participate in this, do you have any other funding options?
Egbert Perry – We do, but we have not been aggressively looking at those options because we believe once the facts are out there, this is something that will gain support.
I would rather not be here and you guys should understand that. No developer likes their project played out in the media. But, I’m here because there are so many inaccuracies put forth in the media as well as here, we thought it was very important the facts be known. And the project should be voted up or down based on the merits and not the misrepresentation.
Rose Scott – Straighten some of that out for us. What do you think has been misrepresented?
Egbert Perry – No one is asking the school board or any other jurisdiction to fund this project. This project was bought 100% with private dollars. All of the vertical development, and infrastructure within the footprint of the project that is private, will be funded with private dollars.
We are asking to use a tool that has been used 10,000 times or more successfully across the country to fund public infrastructure. That is roads, public utilities, public parks, a connection to transit. People think the site is connected to transit. It’s close to transit, but to get there you have to drive in a car a mile to get to it even though the transit stop is just across the tracks.
That’s what the funding is for. It doesn’t make its way to the developer. There’s no mechanism by which we would ever get a penny of those dollars. That has not been made clear. There has been a lot said to suggest that this is funding a private project or developer. That’s not legally possible and an important clarification.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – I haven’t heard anyone from the school board say they have questions about where the money will go, it’s more of a question the money is coming from the school district. Can you understand that argument?
Egbert Perry – Absolutely not. At this money, the school board collects a few hundred thousand dollars every year from the GM site. They have gotten that year in and year out for 8+ years the site has been sitting undeveloped. It’s undeveloped because of the absence of public infrastructure.
What the TAD does is allow you to use your vision of what you can do with the site to fund public infrastructure using private dollars, but all of the increase in taxes that you create first go to repay for that public infrastructure that was funded.
Then the school system, the city and the county start to receive windfall profits because of new tax revenues that have been generated by the development. So, the development is what is generating the dollars to fund the public infrastructure.
At no time does the school board ever reach into its pockets or coffers to fund anything. All it has is upside, it just delays how soon the upside kicks in because the infrastructure has to be funded before the nets start to flow to the district.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Mr. Pinckney, given what Mr. Perry has told us, has this information been presented to the school board in full?
Eric Pinckney (The Assembly project executive) – It has not.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Why not?
Eric Pinckney – Because we have to be invited to make the presentation.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Has it been presented to the board chair or superintendent?
Eric Pinckney – It has been presented to both the board chair and superintendent. They set the agenda for the board. Certain other individuals on the board have seen the presentation.
We have asked for an open public session to present like we did for the city and the county. Nor have we had the educational sessions that happen with 2 or 3 board members at a time with the Superintendent.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Have either the Superintendent or the board chair explained why it’s not moving forward?
Eric Pinckney – Again, to the point of us being here. Because it was an inter governmental situation, the city of Doraville and county lead the conversations. We were not in the room, so I would only be reporting to you what was told back to me.
I had some one on ones with Melvin Johnson and certain other board members. But I have not had a one on one with Dr. Green. We have not had the same level of private presentation to the board and groups as we had with the city and county.
Egbert Perry – One correction. I have had a one on five with Dr. Green and 4 of his staff.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – What was the reception?
Egbert Perry – It was more questions and answers … appropriately so. He expressed certain concerns. I am absolutely confident that I addressed every one of those concerns.
I am not sure what is driving the resistance. It cannot be the facts. The facts stand on their own. The project ought to be able to be voted on up or down based on those facts. They are out there if somebody wants them.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Do you feel like you are in the middle of this tug of war?
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Egbert Perry – Sort of. No developer wants their project played out in the media. I’d really – really rather not be here.
We’ve been here before. 24 years ago we took on the redevelopment of the Centennial Place development on the site of the old Tekwood Homes project. We were villified and the project was vilified. But 10 years later, everybody who opposed it from the outset were trying to take credit for the work that was done.
I have no doubt that’s what would happen here if it had the chance to be heard in the light of day and discussed openly.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – At APS they reaped a lot of money, over $5 million because of that, corrrect?
Egbert Perry – Yeah. APS, City of Atlanta and Fulton County. Can you imagine if somebody 15 years ago somebody proposed redeveloping the steel mill that is now the site of Atlantic Station and the APS superintendent or board said no we don’t want to do that because it takes away money from the children.
The fact is, not a penny is taken away from children. This is net additive. We would be sitting there looking at Atlantic Steel today without Atlantic Station and all the other development activity that happened as a result of the Atlantic Steel site being redeveloped.
That’s what we see here as a potential except in greater magnitude.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – It seems like there is a gap here. If things are that straight forward it’s hard to understand as people who aren’t involved in the process, why the school board would be reluctant to participate. Yet there is this split.
Is there something we are missing either the communication, the message, the facts, is it hard to understand how the economics work? Is there something that is holding everything up?
Eric Pinckney – No. What you have is consistency in DeKalb County because DeKalb County has a TAD at Kensington Station and Briarcliff that do not have school board increment. So, they have historically not participated and we hope this would be one that would move them towards understanding and making that change.
We’re still hopeful. If it’s good for Assembly, then it’s good for Kensington and Briarcliff.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Let’s talk about Assembly. With this drama, is this affecting the other businesses that want to come in? Are they looking elsewhere, have contracts been signed?
Egbert Perry – We have tried to do a good job in keeping people aware … change is difficult. With change you always get resistance. We expect this, but at some point an open hearing is had about the merits of it and that will prevail and that will carry the day.
So, we are staying in close communication with would be prospects and they understand this is part of the process.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Is there any possibility you would abandon this?
Egbert Perry – Abandon is not the right word. We may have to alter our approach. We are talking about the citizens and leadership of Doraville that came up with a vision for their downtown to replace the loss of 6 or 7 thousand jobs and a large percentage of their tax base when the plant shut down.
So, we bonded with them and are committed to get to a good outcome with the city. We would have to revisit and change what it is we have as expectations.
Ironically, there’s been a lot of discussion around whether the school system should be in economic development of a project. This is not something, as claimed, that would be a distraction from them educating children. This is not a distraction because they would not spend one hour or one dollar in effort to cause this project to happen. That work is done by the city and the county. All they stand to do without doing absolutely anything at all is sit back and gain additional tax revenues as a result of what the citizens of Doraville came up with as a vision for their city.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Are you talking about coming up with something new to attract them? Some sort of incubator, business, development center … whatever.
Egbert Perry – First you have to be in a conversation in order to discuss things like that. If you’re not in a conversation, or we’re talking through the mic, each party’s doing that. All we have ever wanted and all the Mayor has asked for and gotten shot down on, is an opportunity to present to the entire board, everybody in there at the same time, so that all questions can be answered and each can hear it.
That has not happened. Until that happens, anybody can say anything to anyone else and you have no idea what’s been said.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Is there a drop dead date by which if the board doesn’t take this up you’ll have to move on. Is there a deadline.
Egbert Perry – There is. June. Next month. We have been very clear that the opportunity of a life time only lasts the lifetime of the opportunity. We must issue bonds this year. To do that, you must allow 5 to 6 months to get it done. If we aren’t looking at a vote by the June school board meeting, we’ll have to be looking at some alternative.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – As we wrap up, that alternative. What does it look like? Will it include Third Rail Studios?
Eric Pinckney – I’ll say this about an alternative. It will not be as straight forward and simple as a Tax Allocation District. But, there are a myriad of options. We’ll have to come up with those options with the group and our partners, the city and county will want to have a say in what those options are.
Rose Scott/Marth Dalton – Are you saying there will be unpaved and bumpy roads leading to The Assembly?
Eric Pinckney – Likely less roads. Prioritization … it’s going to be difficult. We like to do things open and out front.
On jobs and opportunities for children. You mentioned Third Rail. Third Rail is opening by September 1. There will be opportunities for employment, so we’ve already seen increased opportunities for adults and children. And the school board will see more income, because there has been zero sales taxes over the 8 year period and sales taxes will start flowing as well.
Egbert Perry – This is a challenge to the region. It’s not about this project. It’s about a healthy connected region. There is some relationship between leadership and growth. DeKalb County experienced $1.6 billion dollars lost in its tax digest over the last 5 years while everyone else was growing during the recovery from the recession. That’s not, and that’s not my number, I don’t believe that’s coincidental.
So, I recognize that doing things the same way will get the same result. I challenge the region is not squander an opportunity on a great site to do something that unites the reason as opposed to further the continued divide between North and South, one county vs another.
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