October 19, 2016 1:27PM

The Reuse of Two Military Bases in the Atlanta Area

ATLANTA - Support may be building in Congress for another round of military base consolidation. Some believe that leaders will reach agreement with the incoming administration early next year. It’s overdue. The Pentagon says it will have 22 percent excess capacity by 2019. But, of course, for many communities, base closure is a frightening prospect.

Some communities in and around former bases have begun the process of repurposing these properties. At the Association of Defense Communities’ Installation Reuse meeting here in Atlanta, attendees had a chance to visit two such examples: former Army bases Fort Gillem and Fort McPherson. Both have a pathway toward a successful transition to non-defense use since winding up on the 2005 BRAC commission’s cut list, but they have opted for quite different approaches.

Fort Gillem, an Army logistics hub opened in 1941, is now Gillem Logistics Center. It is already home to a 1-million square foot distribution center for Kroger, the popular food retailer. Proximity to a major highway, Interstate 285, proved a key selling point, and enabled Kroger to consolidate operations from five buildings into one. The new facility includes freezers and cold storage for everything from ice cream to fresh cut flowers, and employs about 1000 people. Kroger invested $243 million in the project, part of a 30-year commitment to the property, and they have room to expand.

There are other massive warehouses under construction elsewhere at the former Army base, including an 850,000 square foot facility that is nearing completion. Long-term plans call for 7–8 million square feet of warehouse space, plus another 1 million square feet of mixed-use and retail development. Atlanta boasts some of the lowest real estate costs of any major metropolitan area, and this makes it an attractive location for logistics hubs.

Fort McPherson is located about 11 miles away, northwest of Gillem, and situated between downtown Atlanta and the busy Hartsfield Jackson Airport. The base dates back to the late 19th century, and struggled in the first few years after closure. But it now has a unique and creative future. Tyler Perry, the actor, writer, director, and producer of a string of Hollywood and television hits, paid $30 million for 330 acres at the former site in June last year. His company wasted no time in converting the property. The portion of Tyler Perry Studios now housed in a former army headquarters building includes a variety of sets, everything from hospital rooms to bars to the Oval Office. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but the Los Angeles Times took readers on a virtual tour here. On our driving tour of the rest of the property, we saw a few single family homes that looked like any typical American subdivision, except that they were built in the span of a few weeks, and can be quickly modified to look like any other typical American neighborhood. There’s a massive yacht perched awkwardly on a rise of land near the entrance to the property. It doesn’t float in real life, but can be made to look like it’s in the middle of the ocean through the magic of movie making. Tyler Perry Studios’ plans for the rest of the sprawling property include sound stages as well as open space. Perry’s forthcoming film “Boo: A Madea Halloween” was filmed at Fort Mac, including in and around the old base’s parade grounds. One of the brick homes featured in the movie, Quarters 10, was the base commander’s home (Colin Powell, among others, once lived there).

A major movie studio could be a big draw for the rest of Fort Mac. The McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority, more popularly known as the Fort Mac LRA, retains 145 acres of the former base, with frontage along two major thoroughfares, Lee Street and Campbellton Road. They are in negotiations to construct a new facility for a charter school, which could be a key draw for area residents. Brian Hooker, executive director of the Fort Mac LRA, explained to me that there are 250 employees at a Veterans Administration medical clinic and they have plans to expand. The key for future development will be to attract a mix of retail and commercial activity that will make this property a destination for more than movie extra zombies and grips. But the possibilities for this attractive plot of land seem promising. 

Regardless of whether Congress authorizes a round of base closures in the coming year, or pushes it down the road, the issue of over-capacity will be addressed, one way or another. But a base closing can mean businesses opening, if local policymakers and communities let go of the past and embrace the future. Look no further than Fort Gillem and Fort Mac for evidence of that.