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The 'aerotropolis' idea
County Chairman looking at airport-centered plan

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Every few minutes, a jet rips through the afternoon sky above the farmers' market and passes over the vegetable vendors and semi trucks, aimed for the airport.

From the Atlanta State Farmers' Market in Forest Park, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport just looks like a control tower jutting up out of the trees. From the airport, the farmers' market is a whole world away and doesn't even register except, maybe, as something passengers see briefly below them as they come in to land.

Both the airport and the farmers' market are major transportation hubs in northern Clayton County. Though not connected in any way, both were built for the same reasons -- to serve the city of Atlanta at a distance. Both the farmers' market and the airport are in the county because the county offered cheap land with urban access and, today, both are churning economic engines that seem disconnected from the rest of the county.

Looking at a development idea called "aerotropolis," Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell and some planners are considering ways to connect the airport and its economics to the farmer's market and the rest of the county. That way, they believe, the two hubs will be more central to the region rather than peripheral.

According to Bell, the airport could possibly be tied into the county by extending the Automated People Mover -- the electric, light-rail train currently under construction between the airport and the Consolidated Rental Car Facility, with a stop at the Georgia International Convention Center -- in a loop around the airport.

The Automated People Mover could, theoretically, Bell said, keep going from the rental car facility, through the industrial and warehouse districts along the interstates, and connect to the farmers' market or, even further, to Fort Gillem, which is currently undergoing redevelopment.

Doug Hooker, a vice president at PBS&J, said the idea of an "aerotropolis" is a developing one that deserves a serious consideration by Clayton County residents.

"Hartsfield's already there," Hooker said. "So the question is, do you want to turn your back on it and ignore it, or do you want to put a community face on it ... If the neighboring cities and county can develop their land-use patterns and development patterns, they can become kind of extensions of the airport economy."

The idea has already been embraced by College Park. The city is promoting itself as an "aerotropolis" and has seen, recently, the construction of the Automated People Mover attract the investments of two major hotels. Construction of a $250 million mixed-use facility is expected to begin at the end of this year. Bell would like to find a way to expand that development and investment into the county.

"It's an economic development plan that will catapult us into the future, both nationally and internationally," Bell said. "My interest is mainly international, bringing some of the major businesses of the world to Clayton County."

For now, though, the Clayton County "aerotropolis" is a concept being studied. The radical reshaping of the northern part of Clayton County is just, at this point, embryonic.

Bell was recently given a briefing on the idea, he said, and he plans to pursue further studies. A black binder, sitting on Bell's desk at the commissioners building in Jonesboro, contains a collection of articles by the man who came up with the "aerotropolis" theory of 21st century transportation and development, and a compilation of news clippings from areas around the country where others are considering or pursuing the idea.

The theorists who support the concept say it's a way of orienting planning around "new economic geography." They say that the change in the way we do business has already happened, with the globalization of markets and the dominance of Internet communication, and the "aerotropolis" is just the adjustment of land-use and development ideas.

Critics, however, see the "aerotropolis" as the sort of theory planners come up with when they're not considering the real ways people live. It might work, they argue, in Thailand where a dictator can force his grand vision into reality, but it's not practical in an automobile-loving and suburban-home-prizing democracy.

The aerotropolis concept is currently being considered and debated in Detroit, Memphis, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Baltimore and Phoenix.