Forest Park city officials finalized a $30 million deal Friday to buy Fort Gillem, a project that has been more than five years in the making.
There are a couple of bureaucratic hurdles that have to be cleared before the 1,170 acres are conveyed to the city by July 31, but the deal is essentially completed. City Manager John Parker said he is glad the long process has reached an end.
"It has been a rather arduous task that is now coming to fruition," he said. "The Implementation Local Redevelopment Authority will be taking ownership, and we can initiate the redevelopment of the majority of the property known as Fort Gillem."
The U.S. Army retains a 250-acre enclave that includes its Criminal Investigations Division Crime Lab, a state-of-the-art facility.
"They are also going to use part of the property as a clearinghouse for soldiers going overseas," said Parker. "Then, the soldiers stop back by for debriefing before going back to their home bases."
Fort Gillem was annexed into Forest Park in 1973, and was once a thriving satellite base to Fort McPherson, in East Point. However, it was recommended for closure in May 2005.
Fred Bryant, executive director for Forest Park/Fort Gillem Implementation Local Redevelopment Authority, known as ILRA, said officials began working on the transfer of property in June 2006.
"We first asked for the entire 1,170 acres for no consideration because of the incredible cost to upgrade the property for redevelopment," said Bryant. "The Army rejected that approach."
The Army Corps of Engineers appraised the property at $40 million in 2006. Forest Park countered with an offer of $10-17 million.
"The Army said that was too low, and asked for $52 million," said Bryant.
When the proposed deal first started, Forest Park city officials wanted to turn the land into a mixed-use area, complete with developments for residential and commercial property. But as negotiations dragged and the economy sagged, city officials realized housing was not the investment it once was.
"We started looking at 100 percent industrial, manufacturing, warehouses and business park," said Bryant. "We took the residential part out because of the housing market and downturn in the economy."
Negotiations picked up in the fall of 2011.
"We had a very good meeting in October," he said. "They told me they needed $52 million for the property, but I offered $30 million. I figured they'd tell me to forget it, but they asked how much at settlement and how much more over time."
The ILRA will pay the Army $15 million at settlement and make installment payments on the balance over the next seven years. The first payment of $1 million is to be made on the third anniversary of the initial settlement.
Parker said money for the purchase comes from investments the city has made, not from extra taxes. Norfolk-Southern Railway has expressed an interest in having a presence on the site, said Bryant.
"We have other companies interested as well," he said, declining to be more specific because of the sensitive nature of business negotiations. "We estimate we will be able to replace all the jobs lost when Fort Gillem closed, but also magnifying that by two or three times. I don't think it's unrealistic to predict an influx of 3,000-4,000 jobs. And these jobs will be better-paying, better-skilled."
Parker agreed, adding speculation that better-paying jobs will keep the next generation close to home. "This will improve the socio-economic situation in this area and further the development ability of our kids being able to stay fairly close to home," said Parker. "So they don't have to go out of state to get a decent job and a good wage."
With those higher wages comes the desire for better housing and the best education possible for the children of those workers.
The only private residences to remain on the property are in a 125-unit development owned by The Park at Fort Gillem. The owners have a lease with the Army until 2025, said Parker. The city will assume the lease and deal with any renewal in 2025.
There are about 165 acres of contaminated groundwater scattered about the property. The Army will assume 100 percent responsibility for the cleanup, whether the city contracts out the work, or the Army performs it, said Bryant.
It will take about 10 years to completely change the footprint of the site. The city has maintained a strong partnership since 2007 with developers, Weeks Robinson Properties and LNR Property LLC.
"We are counting on them to help us make smart decisions and focus on what they think will work," said Bryant.