Photo by Curt Yeomans
Morrow officials are preparing to put out a request for proposals from developers interested in reviving the town’s shuttered “Olde Towne Morrow” commercial development. It could eventually re-open someday as a public-private partnership.
The City of Morrow is about to put out a call for developers to submit their ideas on how to salvage the town’s much-maligned “Olde Towne Morrow” development.
The Morrow Downtown Development Authority, which oversees the shuttered project, gave city Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin the OK on Monday to request proposals to attract developers interested in taking over the development. It is the first step, in a potentially long process, to — city officials hope — revive “Olde Towne” as a public-private partnership.
That would allow developers to take on costly, yet needed, renovations that would allow buildings on the property to operate within the confines of city laws, including its fire code. Those renovations, officials project, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Basically, the idea is to get developers involved, and do some sort of proposal as far as making ‘Olde Towne’ profitable,” said Myron Maxey, the chairman of the Morrow Downtown Development authority board. “Everybody knows it needs to be done.”
The development authorities decision is the first public sign that a new direction may be on the horizon for the site, which is located next to Southlake Mall.
“Olde Towne” was a city-owned commercial development that included park space, old homes that were renovated to become shops and restaurants, and new shopping structures. It opened in December 2009, with much fanfare, but only a handful of tenants. The town pumped $13 million into its creation, including moving the old homes to the site, renovating them and then building a new set of shops.
City officials closed it a year-and-a-half ago, in December 2010, after they realized it only made approximately $10,000 in its first year of operation. They had also discovered a host of other problems, including inadequate planning, a lack of parking, and no leases for tenants.
A big issue, according to city officials, was that the buildings on the site had a residential sprinkler system (which uses plastic pipes), even though city code required the installation of a commercial system (which uses costlier metal pipes). City officials have claimed former City Manager John Lampl, who oversaw the development’s creation, had the residential system installed despite knowing that it was illegal.
While Lampl never addressed those specific accusations, he defended his work on the project, saying, “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Those issues drew the ire of Morrow residents, and led to the May 2011 ouster of Lampl, who by that time had left the city manager’s position and become a city councilman. He was later indicted by a Clayton County grand jury for his role in the development’s creation, and is still awaiting trial.
Even though “Olde Towne Morrow” is shuttered, and generating no revenue, the development authority still has to pay operational costs on it every year. City and authority leaders revealed Monday that they project they will have to pay $11,443 in fiscal year 2013 to cover operational costs for the development.
“The city just is not in a position to sink a lot of money into this, not knowing what’s going to go in there,” McLaughlin said. “The public-private partnership is about the only way to handle this. ... It would cost about half-a-million dollars, at our best guess, to replace the sprinkler systems [for all of the ‘Olde Towne’ buildings combined].”
McLaughlin and City Manager Jeff Eady said “Olde Towne” has turned out to be a distraction that has prevented them from devoting as much of their attention to the city’s “core services” as they would like.
“Any dollar we spend [on “Olde Towne”] takes away from other city departments, such as our police department, and our fire department,” said Eady, who added that it could take up to 180 days to get the request for proposals ready. McLaughlin said it would have to “articulate what we want” for the development site.
There have been a few, behind-closed-doors glimmers of hope for a turnaround at “Olde Towne” by turning it into an attraction for Southlake Mall, or a state tourism center, officials confirmed. But, they added, those prospects have stalled, if not completely fallen apart.
So, a public-private partnership will be their next attempt to turn around the “Olde Towne” project. If developers show interest in the site, and if the Morrow Downtown Development Authority approves of any submitted proposals, the city and developers would split responsibility for the site.
“The city could keep the infrastructure, and take care of the roads and the park space, while the buildings and vacant land would be offered out to a developer,” McLaughlin told members of the development authority board.
Regardless of whatever developers propose for “Olde Towne,” however, city officials said its next incarnation has to be sustainable for the long haul.
“It’s got to be something that’ll last 20 years,” McLaughlin said.