0

Take a look at Fort Gillem’s past while Forest Park officials plan ahead

FOREST PARK — Forest Park city officials are basking in the glow of the purchase of Fort Gillem Thursday afternoon — and are looking to the future.

“It doesn’t matter what’s gone on before the deal. The deal is done,” Mayor David Lockhart said. “It’s not about finding a good deal anymore. It’s about doing the best we can with the deal we have.”

For now, officials looking after the future of Gillem are focused on getting ready for Project Jasper to move in. Project Jasper is the code name for a company poised to bring a distribution center to a portion of Gillem. The company is expected to close the deal — and reveal its identity — Tuesday.

Fred Bryant, the executive director of the Forest Park/Fort Gillem Implementation Local Redevelopment Authority, said another flurry of work can begin after that.

“Jasper has an ambitious window to get ready to be operational — by August 2015,” he said. “We have to make sure everything is in place by then.”

The city will then start marketing Gillem and searching for more business tenants.

But what’s happening on Gillem’s soil is just the beginning. Both Lockhart and City Manager Frank Brandon said they envisioned the purchase as the beginning of a chain reaction that will result in more business and residential interest in Forest Park.

“It’s my hope that what happens on the base revitalizes what’s off the base,” Lockhart said. “I hope we’d be able to shed some of the stigma and attract new business, and with that attract new residents, to Forest Park.”

While city officials continue to look to the future, it’s difficult not to glance back at the Gillem deal’s extensive past.

“I’m relieved because there were lots of bumps in the road, and it would have been very, very easy for my team to get frustrated to the point that we said, ‘forget it, we’re done,’” Bryant said. “There were times when I thought this deal wouldn’t take place.”

But the deal was made. Forest Park’s Urban Redevelopment Authority bought Gillem from the U.S. Army for $30 million dollars, $15 million of which will be paid off over the next seven years with no interest. The deal with Project Jasper will help finance the $15 million down payment for the property.

Jasper will also alert city council to any job openings Forest Park residents can fill.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I am now for the city of Forest Park,” Brandon said.

Here’s a look back at the 9-year-long Gillem deal:

2005 — The army approved the closure of Fort Gillem.

2006 — The Forest Park/Fort Gillem Implementation Local Redevelopment Authority began reaching out to see if any public service entities or shelters would be interested in using the land. At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had been providing support for Hurricane Katrina victims out of Fort Gillem, was attempting to buy 237 acres of the land. That was a problem for Forest Park, Bryant said.

“It was right in the middle of the property,” he said. “It would have made it impossible to develop the rest.”

Luckily, the ILRA convinced the Army that FEMA should search for land elsewhere.

At this point, the ILRA began an initial vision plan by asking local politicians and residents what they would want to see happen with Gillem’s land.

2007 — The ILRA sent its initial redevelopment plan and homeless accommodation plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also selected the master developers who would stay on for the remainder of the project.

2008 — The HUD approved the homeless accommodation and initial redevelopment plans, a step which Bryant said was crucial to the process.

“Had they not done that, we would have been done,” he said. “That was a huge deal.”

2009 — The ILRA put together an operating plan to figure out what could be re-used and what Gillem looked like environmentally.

2010 — The ILRA drafted a business plan to show the Army it would be able to develop and pay for the property over time. The authority also submitted an economic development conveyance application — a document that would allow the Army to sell the property directly to the ILRA. In this first application, the ILRA asked the Army to give them the land for free.

Bryant said the Army basically laughed at the request and came back with an offer that was too expensive because it didn’t capture the recent market crash. That’s when nearly a year of negotiating began.

“We were never getting close on a price,” Bryant said.

2011 — The IRLA and the Army arrived at an offer both could agree on at what Bryant called a “groundbreaking meeting in Atlanta.” According to the deal, the ILRA would pay $30 million to the Army — a $15 million down payment followed by $15 million paid over seven years, with no interest.

2012 — The Army needed to see an outline of how the ILRA would make sure the deal was carried out. The IRLA also needed to change the original economic development conveyance application to make sure it reflected the plan. Bryant said that meant more “back and forth” negotiating with the Army, which wanted proof the IRLA would actually be able to bring enough to development to Gillem to pay off the debt.

Around this time, the Army lost money on a botched deal with a city in another part of the country that was unable to pay back its debt after it bought a closed base. The Army wanted the IRLA to somehow guarantee its payment with more than just a payment — but Bryant said nobody was sure how to do that.

2013 — The Army and the IRLA agreed that the City of Forest Park would open a line of credit with SunTrust Bank and put the full faith and credit of the city behind the IRLA’s agreement with the Army. That way, if the IRLA wasn’t able to pay off its loan, the city could.

The agreement was a step in the right direction, but also meant several more months of finalizing legal documents.

“Now there’s new language that had to be added,” Bryant said.

But the Army gave Bryant and the ILRA some hope by letting them know that their economic development conveyance application would be approved — as soon as all the paperwork was finished.

In the same year, the ILRA voted to contract Weston Solutions to clean up contaminated portions of Fort Gillem at a bargain price. The U.S. Office of Economic Adjustment agreed to pay 90 percent of the cost. Forest Park would pick up the remaining 10 percent. The Army is responsible for making sure the clean up happens.

2014 — The city formed the Urban Redevelopment Authority to replace the ILRA. The new authority could facilitate the deal between the city and the Army — the ILRA could not.

The Army approved the economic development conveyance application and discussions with Project Jasper became serious. After smoothing out a few road bumps, Forest Park agreed to back the URA’s agreement with the Army.

Gillem was purchased.

“We’re there now, but it’s taken this long to get there,” Bryant said. “I’m really excited for the opportunity this presents to the city, the county and the region as a whole.”