MORROW — Olde Towne Morrow is the city of Morrow’s albatross. However, the latest plan for repurposing the failed development is to turn it into a SWAT practice range for Morrow Police and the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department.
Chief Jimmy Callaway floated the idea at the council’s April 23 work session, saying that he and Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill had discussed the idea.
According to Callaway, Hill likes the location because it’s essentially “ready-made” for SWAT practice scenarios. City officials also say the plan would keep homeless people, who have taken up residence in the vacant buildings, out of the area.
The 16.59-acre property is listed for sale with Ackerman Retail at an asking price of $1.6 million. The construction and site development project, by Georgia Development Partners, cost the city about $1.5 million in 2008.
However, in 2017, the News reported costs around $12.5 million when former City Manager John Lempl pleaded no contest to falsifying fire sprinkler requirements for the project. A judge dismissed three related corruption charges stemming from a 2011 grand jury indictment. The city spent an additional $637,934 to run Olde Towne Morrow, which made $9,921 during its 13-month operation.
In July 2018, the city considered turning the assemblage of old houses and a small shopping strip into a zipline attraction. The city voted to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Canopy Consulting, Inc. in September 2018. However, owner Bradd Morse wanted to stage tours and parking at Olde Towne and run canopy tours in Barton Park, a move neighbors opposed. The deal eventually fell through.
Now a virtual ghost town, the assemblage has been a headache for the city. Its collection of architecturally significant buildings lacks historic value because the buildings were removed from their original contexts.
According to City Manager Sylvia Redic, “The city has allowed certain groups to use it for festivals and such, including the Chamber of Commerce for the Shrimpfest last year.”
Yet, for some reason, the property is still sitting there. The city only pays to cut the grass, Redic said.
“We have had several people who wanted to build it to be what it is, a hub of restaurants and retail,” Redic said, “some who have wanted to add multifamily housing, even one that wanted to build an amusement park with retail and recreation all with a zombie theme, an outdoor amphitheater and sports arena — all kinds of ideas that never seem to make it to the finish line.”
In a recent visit to Olde Towne Morrow, the News found the old homes continuing to deteriorate, with windows broken out on lower and upper floors. Most of the shops are open to the elements, with doors and windows broken or missing and electrical wiring stripped out of graffitied walls. Stray dogs and cats roamed the property.
The site is next to Southlake Mall. The mall was recently purchased by a new company, CityView Commercial LLC. The mall’s leasing information projects more than 6% sales growth between 2017 and 2022.
How would a SWAT practice range coexist with a shopping mall? A stand of trees makes it difficult to see Olde Towne Morrow from the mall, which could be a plus in this case. As for the sound of automatic weapons fire, Callaway suggested that digital signs announcing “police exercise underway” on the roads around the mall could alert passersby.
Redic said, “it’s just an idea that we are considering. I don’t think anyone has spent any time cultivating it enough yet to know any details or even if it’s a real possibility.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police has published detailed “Police Facility Planning Guidelines.” According to IACP standards, the site would have to be evaluated, the community would have to support the project and the buildings would need to be made structurally sound: “Is the building itself a hazard? Does this building meet, or can it be made to conform in a cost-effective way, to state or local structural building codes?”
Redic said, “If in fact that’s the case, I’d have to first understand what is the measure of ‘structurally sound.’ Then I’d have to assess how much needs to be done to get the structures into that measure of soundness and the associated costs.”
However, she added, “If Morrow is extending the property for such a temporary use to the Sheriff’s Office, it is not likely Morrow would be making the investment. So this question may be better suited for Sheriff Hill.”
E-mail and telephone requests for comment from the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department were not returned by press time.