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Gillem plans unaffected by environment, economy

By Daniel Silliman and

Joel Hall

dsilliman@news-daily.com

jhall@news-daily.com

Despite environmental concerns about Fort Gillem, the national economy, and the local housing market, redevelopment officials have not been confronted by anything that dramatically alters re-use plans.

The re-use plan was approved in May 2007, calling for light-industrial and mixed use redevelopment, when the United States Army closes the base down in 2011. The plan, calling for warehouses and shipping facilities, buttressed by office space and housing, was based on what the Forest Park Local Redevelopment Authority thought it would find, when environmental and economic studies were completed.

The environmental studies are nearing completion, giving officials a fuller comprehension of the contamination issues.

There have been dramatic local and national economic changes within the county over last year and a half, including the school system's loss of accreditation, a national housing market overwhelmed by foreclosures and widespread concern about an economic crisis. At this point, though, authorities don't think they will make more than minor adjustments to the redevelopment plans.

"The approach we take is to be visionary and see what the potential of the Fort Gillem site is," said Deborah Jensen, a senior associate at Cooper Carry, the firm which worked out the approved plan. "Of course there are so many unknowns. So it's a conceptual vision, and then as more information becomes available over time, then the plans become more focused ... It's an ongoing process to refine the plan, as we test the broader concept against any new information we have."

The Fort Gillem redevelopment authorities expect to have an operation plan completed, and a business plan started by Thanksgiving.

The operation plan will include a report to the Environmental Protection Agency about the contamination in need of remediation at the 1,190-acres being vacated by the federal government.

"By Thanksgiving, we will have the additional information we need on the environmental issues, so that we can make the best assessment about what we want to do," said Fred Bryant, executive director of the LRA.

Initial reports of environmental problems included contaminated ground water and old, buried tanks of petroleum products. The operation plan also will look at the infrastructure of the military installation, identifying which buildings can be used and which need to be demolished.

The approved re-use plan -- called "Alternative A" in the LRA meetings -- took the known environmental contamination into consideration, and so far there haven't been any surprise discoveries. The Army is expected to do some remediation, but the re-use plans are supposed to also reduce the human exposure to the contamination.

"If you want to put a school, or a playground, you won't be able to hoist it in an area where there is contamination. If we wanted to build a parking lot, we may be able to encase the contaminant and park cars on top of it," said John Parker, Forest Park city manager.

At the same November meeting where the LRA expects to approve the operation plan, the authority expects to accept one of six bids to do the economic forecast and plan, according to Bryant.

"There are all kinds of economic factors," Bryant said. "All these things will be thought through in detail in the economic analysis and forecasting."

The main economic factor anchoring the re-use plan, though, is proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, according to Jensen at Cooper Carry. The need for a good portion of light industrial use is unlikely to change, despite economic uncertainties, and that plan is also the best suited for the environmental factors.

The LRA, the city and Cooper Carry expect the studies to give more detailed information, but not to really alter what is known.

The LRA will take the two plans, which will included studies of needed environmental clean-up and forecasts of the local economy, to the Base Realignment And Closure officials in the spring of 2009. The LRA will use the material to make the case the Army should sell the base to the LRA for redevelopment, instead of auctioning it off on the courthouse steps, when the army leaves in fall of 2011.