(Atlanta Business Chronicle November 20, 2015)

By Doug Sams

Regional planners are seeking a long-sought spark that could ignite nearly 200,000 square feet of retail, including a major grocery anchor, for underserved southwest Atlanta neighborhoods around Fort McPherson.

A series of public meetings about the Fort McPherson area continues to tackle the longstanding issues hindering neighborhoods that make up a 1,300-acre district just south of downtown Atlanta.

The area is part of Livable Cities Initiative, a program that could spur its revitalization. Median incomes in a 5-minute drive hover near $24,700, a fraction of the affluence of many Atlanta neighborhoods such as Buckhead, Midtown and Old Fourth Ward, according to data presented at the most recent public meeting Nov. 17.

Even so, the Fort McPherson area could still attract about 192,000-square feet of retail, and may become a compelling market for discount grocery concepts such as Walmart’s Neighborhood Market or Aldi, said Ben King, a senior consultant with Noell Consulting Group.

Noell is part of a large team of consultants helping identify redevelopment opportunities around Fort McPherson, which remains walled-off from surrounding neighborhoods.

Planners and economic development officials see the chance to tear down the walls and bring retail to the former Army base along U.S. 29, or Lee Street, an investment-starved corridor that runs south from downtown Atlanta.

“This is the hole in the donut,” King told neighborhood residents and activists attending the public meeting. “There are not that many retailers in the area. Income levels have probably scared a few away. But, we think there is a retail story here. It may need a cheerleader to convince retailers, but with time we think they can support it.”

City and regional planners and MARTA have studied the revitalization of neighborhoods surrounding Fort McPherson before, but the process has taken more urgency after Atlanta producer and actor Tyler Perry earlier this year bought a large portion of the base.

Tyler Perry Studios will build a new campus on 330 acres of Fort McPherson. The McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority is leading redevelopment of remaining 145 acres. It’s also a major player in finding opportunities for new investment and development in the 1,300-acre Fort Mac study area.

“We have a story to tell,” said Brian Hooker, executive director of the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority.

Hooker also understands the challenges, especially for an area that still has such low incomes compared to the rest of the city. Some neighborhoods are still recovering from a wave of mortgage fraud, and abandoned homes remain a problem.

“We are trying to get retail to come here before we have the rooftops,” Hooker said.

Even so, the area has two potential catalyst projects under way: Atlanta BeltLine Inc. began construction on the Westside Trail, which crosses the northern edge of the LCI study area. MARTA is also receiving proposals for a walkable mixed-use development at its nearby Oakland City rail station.