Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart, center, shares a laugh with attendees at a ceremony held at Fort Gillem Friday to recognize the impending transfer of most of the fort property from the Army to the city. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
FOREST PARK — The Army symbollically turned over nearly 1,000 acres of land to Forest Park officials Friday morning and they plan to make the transfer official in the coming weeks.
The city and the U.S. Department of Defense held a joint ceremony at the former First Army Headquarters at Fort Gillem to commemorate the impending move. During the ceremony, Mayor David Lockhart and Base Closure and Realignment Commission assistant Andrew Napoli signed resolutions recognizing the occasion.
Fort Gillem was selected for closure by BRAC in 2005 and the First Army moved out in September 2011. Only a small portion, now known as the 257-acre Gillem Enclave, will remain in the hands of the Army.
The city plans to redevelop the ex-fort as an industrial center and is already in talks with companies who are looking to lease portions of the land to build warehouses. Napoli said the development is expected to bring 1,500 new jobs in the area over the next two years.
“For many communities, BRAC is a four-letter word,” said Napoli. “Today, though, there is proof that there is life after BRAC. Fort Gillem has a proud history but today it has a very exciting, bright future.”
The ceremony was a culminating event of sorts after years of negotiations to buy the property. The city and the Army still must wade through financial and deeding paperwork before the transfer can become official, but Napoli and Urban Redevelopment Authority Fred Bryant said it should be done soon.
“It’ll be a matter of weeks, not months,” said Bryant, who has been working for the city to secure the land since 2006.
During the ceremony, Lockhart recognized several current and former officials from the city, beginning with former Councilwoman Sparkle Adams and former City Manager John Parker before recognizing current council members.
Current City Manager Frank Brandon thanked Parker for working with Bryant to get efforts to buy the property started.
“This is an exciting day for Forest Park and Clayton County and it’s a dream come true for a lot of people including a lot of people who are not with us anymore and a lot of people who are still with us,” said Brandon. “Let’s move forward. Let’s make a dynamic and outstanding city of Forest Park and a dynamic and outstanding county of Clayton.”
Lockhart said the acquisition of Fort Gillem will be a boost for efforts to improve the economic fortunes of Forest Park and its neighboring cities.
The city, he said, should “be booming again” when the purchase is added with other economic efforts. Those efforts include the TriCity Opportunity Zone the city is working on with Morrow and Lake City, as well as the city’s recent decision to partner with the county on a land bank to handle foreclosed properties.
“Fort Gillem cannot be the only weapon in our arsenal, but it can be a power asset,” said Lockhart.
The city had to show it had a plan in place to redevelop the property, including showing it was in talks with a company — which for now is going by the “Project Jasper” code name — before the Army would agree to sell the property.
Napoli said the transfer will take place over two phases. The first phase will see 770 acres go to the city for $15 million and another $15 million will be paid through a series of payments over the next seven years. The Army will use that money to pay for environmental remediation at BRAC sites in Georgia and elsewhere in the nation, he said.
The second phase will transfer nearly 400 more acres to the city, he said.
“The agreement, when executed, marks a policy milestone in the way the Army conveys excess property through the BRAC process,” he said. “The guarantee of payment not only protects the country’s taxpayers, but it increases the likelihood of successful redevelopment for the city of Forest Park and residents through the region.”
Napoli later added that partnering with a developer to ensure companies will move onto the property is an example of “exactly the right way” to handle a BRAC closure.
Non-city officials in attendance included county Commission Chairman Jeff Turner, Commissioners Sonna Singleton and Shana Rooks, state Sens. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) and Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), state Reps. Sandra Scott, Valencia Stovall, Keisha Waites and Demetrius Douglas.
County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott, District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson and Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Yulonda Beauford also attended the event.
Wainscott said the transfer comes at a time when development is moving south along I-75 with companies such as Porsche North America moving their headquarters to the Forest Park and Hapeville area. He added that the transfer will be “huge” for all of Georgia when companies begin moving in.
However, the biggest impact should be felt within the county when the land — which was tax exempt as long as it is owned by a government — is sold off in parcels to businesses and begins to re-enter the city and county’s tax digest.
“When you can keep some of the best and highest paid jobs that the Army had here by keeping them in the enclave, and then free up close to 1,000 acres for redevelopment and put them on the tax rolls too, it’s a dream come true,” said Wainscott.