By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell told a group of developers, business leaders and elected officials from across six south-metro counties Tuesday the catch phrase for development in 2009 will be "accessibility, accessibility, accessibility."
Officials from Clayton and Henry counties, who attended the South Metro Development Outlook conference at Clayton State University, said they believe their counties are positioned to grow economically over the next 20 years. They said their reasoning is based largely on their proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and other transportation systems, such as railroads and Interstate 75.
"People are getting tired of having to get in their car and drive somewhere," Bell said. "They want things to be accessible."
Officials from both counties discussed how economic development should work in the future, and said transportation plays a role in the plans for both Clayton and Henry.
Clayton officials will take advantage of the airport's proximity to two tax allocation districts located in the north and central parts of the county, said Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott.
One project would bring office and industrial development to an area near the airport once known as Mountain View, Wainscott said. He said the other tax allocation district would be used to encourage retail and residential redevelopment along Tara Boulevard. The districts were approved by the Board of Commissioners in December.
One idea Bell discussed that would impact development not only in Clayton County, but in its neighboring counties as well, is an "aerotropolis." It would be developed around the east and south sides of the airport. Bell said similar projects are underway in Detroit, Mich., and in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in Texas. The aerotropolis would incorporate the tax allocation district for the Mountain View area. It would be similar to a city, but linked to air and rail transportation.
The format would include commercial, entertainment, and residential developments. "It would be four to five times larger than Atlantic Station," Bell said, referring to a mixed-use development in Midtown Atlanta.
The project is being studied at this time, and Bell said the format would be regional in its reach, and would impact development in Fayette, Fulton and Henry counties.
Bell said he is working with officials from the office of U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) to get as much as $8 million from the federal government to fund a study.
Part of the "aerotropolis" would be two uses for railroads in the area. One use is a commuter rail line that would connect people who live in the south-metro area with Atlanta, Macon and Athens. The other is a heavy rail line that would carry cargo for the airport, and reach as far north as Chattanooga, Tenn.
Michael Harris, director of Henry County's Planning and Development Division, said the airport can help his county as well. Several distribution centers, which do business with the airport, are located in Henry County because of its seven interchanges off I-75. Harris said the interstate also helps Henry County because it links the area to the shipping ports in Savannah.
The county also is looking at ways to address transportation needs. So far, county officials have been working with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority to get another bus route added because of the high demand on existing routes.
Harris said county officials began working with leaders from Henry County's four cities in 2004 on a "One Henry" concept to build more collaboration among the governments.
"If we're going to be a player in the future, we need to be one voice instead of five," Harris said. "All plans from now on are going to be joint plans."
In Henry, city and county officials have spent years putting together a comprehensive plan for future development, which addresses a wide range of areas, including transportation, utilities and economic development.
Harris said the plan could go to the Henry County Board of Commissioners for approval in March. He said now is the right time for the plan because development has slowed in the county.
"The horse has stopped. Now is the time to put our plans into place," he said.
However, despite the optimism, there remains the specter of a sluggish economy and high foreclosure rates.
Jason O'Callaghan, president of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, gave a PowerPoint presentation on foreclosures in the area during the conference.
In January, there were 34,659 foreclosure filings in the south-metro area, which represents a 35 percent increase from December 2008, according to O'Callaghan. Among the six south-metro counties, Clayton had the fourth-highest increase (28 percent), while Henry had the smallest increase in the region at 23 percent.
Fayette County had the highest increase of foreclosure filings, at 51 percent. Coweta, Fulton and Spalding counties are the other three counties in the south-metro area.