Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Morrow City Councilman John Lampl said Tuesday that he would "do it again" if he was given a mulligan on how he developed the city's costly, and controversial, Olde Towne Morrow project.
The development, which is located behind Southlake Mall, was shuttered by the city last December after it was determined that none of the buildings at the site met the city's fire code.
That was just one of many problems plaguing the project, whose woes include it making far less revenue than it cost to operate, a lack of parking, and environmental concerns about the site upon which it sits.
Tuesday night, Morrow residents and city employees grilled the city's current economic development director, Michael McLaughlin, about the financial state of Olde Towne Morrow.
That led Lampl to defend the development of the project, telling residents they needed to "look at things in a big perspective." Earlier in the meeting, Lampl admitted he was the person who oversaw its creation and construction.
"If there's ever a doubt that I stand behind Olde Towne Morrow, and the different things we have, don't believe it for a second," Lampl said. "I stood behind it then, and I stand behind it now."
Lampl's leadership in the development of Olde Towne Morrow has come under fire in recent months as information has come to light on how the project, which cost the city $12.3 million to build, was created. Lampl, who joined the city council in March 2010, oversaw Olde Towne's creation from 2007, to 2009, first as Morrow's city manager, and later as its economic development and planning director.
McLaughlin, the current economic development and planning director, told residents on Tuesday that Olde Towne Morrow generated only $9,921 in revenue, and cost $637,934 to operate, in its first year. He said the small amount of revenue was, in part, because businesses that located there were not required to pay rent on a monthly basis.
He added that the development would turn out a revenue of only $379,009 per year, if every store front in Olde Towne Morrow was rented out to a business, and they were all paying their rent on time, and there were no infrastructure problems.
He has previously said that, before he was hired by the city last year, businesses were not required to sign leases to be at the development. He has also previously said that steps, such as feasibility studies, market studies and environmental studies, which are commonly conducted with such projects, were not conducted during the development of Olde Towne Morrow.
On top of that, city documents reveal that the city, while establishing storefronts at Olde Towne Morrow, knowingly installed plastic pipes allowed for the sprinkler systems in residential buildings, when city code required metal pipes for commercial structures.
McLaughlin said he expects it will take approximately five years for the city to be able to pay off its debts from the Olde Towne Morrow development. "This is a serious challenge," he said. "This is no laughing matter, and it will take years [to fix] ... We didn't get here overnight, and we aren't going to fix it overnight. And, I think I even said in my interviews that this is roughly going to be a five-year plan, just to stabilize this."
Mayor Jim Millirons was quick to defend McLaughlin to city residents, who were throwing a barrage of questions at him.
"We've got an economic person on staff now, and quite frankly, he inherited the ox in the ditch, so to speak," Millirons said. "So, Olde Towne Morrow is shut down. The numbers are there any time you want to visit Michael, but he's not the offender. He's the guy providing the explanation ... He's not really responsible for this."
Millirons later conceded to residents that, "I don't think you'd be satisfied with any explanation that's given," about why Olde Towne Morrow was developed in the way that it was.
Lampl defended Olde Towne's development, however, by first comparing it to the way the Georgia Department of Transportation builds a bridge. He then said a project like Olde Towne would have been developed outside the city limits, if the city had not done something at Southlake Mall.
"The action of inaction, or analysis paralysis is unacceptable, that's just a flat-out fact," Lampl said. "Disagree with me? Not a problem, [but] I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Morrow resident, Jeff DeTar, then exclaimed, "Not with me here you can't!" from the back of the city council chambers. DeTar is part of a group of residents who have begun publicly questioning city leaders about Olde Towne Morrow.
"This was not planned development," DeTar told Lampl, while the city council meeting was still going on. "This was blind 'drive ahead and do it ourselves, because I can't find somebody else to go into it with me' ... Everything you just said was baloney."