Clayton County: Chang In The Air
Airport Sparks Growth And Redevelopment
Not long ago most people considered Atlanta’s northside to be the city’s development hotspot. The area south of town was important only as home of the airport.
Times have changed. The southside is booming and Clayton County, home to Hartsfield-Jackson’s runways, is pegged by many as the epicenter of future growth.
“I think it’s been a great secret,” says Shane Short, outgoing executive director of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce (he takes over as Jackson County chamber president and CEO this month). “To tell you the truth, there has been a lot of development that has taken place down here in the past, but most people aren’t aware of what’s really happening; but I think the southside has a great future.”
The current good times and the great things to come are centered mostly, but not exclusively, around Hartsfield-Jackson International. This sprawling transportation hub – one of the world’s busiest – is not only the most powerful engine in Clayton County’s economy, it also represents the pathway to a new kind of development that could radically transform the region.
That future may be taking shape just a half mile from the airport on a 28-acre site adjacent to the Georgia International Convention Center (GICC) in College Park.
The city and GICC have joined with private developer Grove Street Partners to launch a $230 million mixed-use project. Gateway Center will include a 400-room convention hotel along with a 140-room suites hotel. Officials expect 1.1 million square feet of office, retail and hotel space to follow.
The addition of hotel space will immediately solve one of GICC’s biggest problems – the inability to attract big shows and meetings to the 400,000-square-foot facility because of a lack of nearby lodging.
“We’ve been operating at basically a handicap,” says GICC executive director Hugh Austin. “That’s priority one, especially for new centers, to have an adjacent flagship convention hotel to take care of your clients. We’ll be able to accommodate larger groups and shift our marketing focus to more corporate business when we are connected to the airport.”
The two hotels should open for business about the same time as Hartsfield’s new Automated People Mover, which will provide passengers easy transport from baggage claim to hotels or on to CONRAC, the new consolidated rental car facility.
If everything falls into place as planned, GICC could become one of the hottest convention properties around. More than half a million visitors already enter Clayton County through Hartsfield-Jackson; that number is expected to grow along with the airport. Convention center revenue is projected to rise by as much as 30 to 35 percent, Austin says.
Hotel construction will be followed by at least two more phases including more than 1 million square feet of office and retail space. When combined with Hartsfield-Jackson’s $5.4 billion expansion due for completion in 2015, the area surrounding GICC is likely to become one of the region’s busiest, following a pattern seen at other big city airports.
Planners refer to an urban business cluster built around a major airport as an aerotropolis. These new centers are springing up in cities around the world, spurred by the need for fast and convenient transportation. In fact, airports are 21st century engines of development – much as highways were in the 20th century and railroads in the 19th.
“The old phrase used to be location, location, location, but for the new generation such as the professional folks in Atlanta it’s accessibility, accessibility, accessibility,” Austin declares. “You’re looking at people who want to live in a condo on Peachtree Street and they want the accessibility of not being tied down to a vehicle and having the ability to get to the airport to do their business, to leave town, and get back quickly and efficiently. I think the aerotropolis concept fits in well with that.”
The fallout from this development could help surrounding areas to thrive as well. Clayton County Com-mission Chairman Eldrin Bell is pushing the idea of extending Hartsfield’s Automated People Mover around the southside to connect the Atlanta Farmers Market and the planned redevelopment at Fort Gillem. Eventually, the transportation corridor might encircle the airport itself.
“It really is driven by growth at the airport,” says Robin Roberts, director of economic development for Clayton County. “Companies are interested in locating near the airport and have seen the advantage of the current transportation system that is in place. And we’re continuing to work on adding even more transportation infrastructure in the area.”
Owing to Clayton’s small size and largely built out landscape, the emphasis elsewhere in the county is on redevelopment. From Mountain View to Jonesboro to Riverdale, officials are busy preparing plans and showing off renderings of fresh new town centers and mixed-use developments.
“We are seeing more redevelopment-type projects where we put together parcels of land, properties to position ourselves and take advantage of the international airport and the expansion of mass transportation south of town,” explains Clayton County Development Authority Chairman Larry Vincent.
A dozen of these projects currently are in one stage of development or another. For instance, the area just east of the airport has undergone dramatic change as development has spread out to engulf the Mountain View community. Even more change is on the horizon with the construction of Hartsfield-Jackson’s new International Terminal.
“This is a redevelopment area that will focus on an office/ hotel/retail development corridor with surrounding light industrial uses,” Roberts says. “We’ve been considered an industrial area for so long, but with the projected growth of population in the Metro Atlanta area, we see that movement coming southward.”
That growth is spreading into northwest Clayton just below the airport’s fifth runway. Here officials see great potential for emulating what developers have done at other big airports with hotels and Class A office space.
“We’re looking at a development similar to a Crystal City near the Reagan National Airport in DC,” Roberts says. Because it’s parallel with the runways, noise is not as much of an issue as on the end of the runways; so you could develop highrises.”
Some communities are taking the opportunity to remake themselves. Riverdale, for example, is planning to create a new town center: a pedestrian-friendly focal point for a community that lacks one now. The new development – on a parcel off busy State Road 85, the main thoroughfare – will combine a mixed-use development of retail and residential with a government and community center. Walking paths will bisect expanses of greenspace to create what local leaders hope will be a new downtown.
The effort grew out of a Livable Centers Initiative study on the feasibility of creating a true downtown. [Editor’s Note: The Livable Centers Initiative is an Atlanta Regional Commission program that encourages local jurisdictions to link transportation improvements with land use development strategies].
It identified the only land parcel that could accommodate such a project. Though a contract for the land is not in place, the city does have a memorandum of understanding with the owner regarding intent to sell, and the project is poised to move forward.
“We’re trying to move Riverdale from being somewhat of a quaint bedroom community to one of the more livable center cities around,” says Douglas Manning, the city’s director of community development. “We want people to understand that there are housing opportunities, there are employment opportunities and business opportunities within the city of Riverdale.”
Officials hope the town center project will give locals and visitors alike a reason to stay in the city by making it more than just a long strip of stores. The key phrase here is quality of life.
“Many people have left Riverdale, but they really haven’t left Riverdale,” explains City Manger Iris Jessie. “They still come back to get their hair done or their car repaired. That says they still have a connection here.”
Accelerating growth also can be found in the southern end of the county around the city of Lovejoy, where new retail and residential development is fast paced.
“The growth has been tremendous,” says the Clayton Chamber’s Short. “That was the last area of the county that was sort of underdeveloped but that’s not the case anymore.” In the last three years the area has become home to a Home Depot and a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and, as Short points out, “all of the smaller stores that follow those chains and the residential units. The development there is just enormous.”
Lovejoy is an often-mentioned stop along a proposed rail line that locals hope will eventually stretch from Atlanta to Macon. While little progress has been made lately in the face of general indifference from the state and federal governments, leaders continue to push the idea as an economic catalyst for stops along the line.
“With the development around those stations we would be providing the live, work, play communities with the transportation option as well,” Roberts says.
As these projects proceed, Clayton will no longer be neglected, but instead will take its place among the metro region’s better known hotspots. The secret is out and for Clayton County, it’s about time.
Clayton County At-A-Glance
Clayton County, 271,240;
Forest Park, 22,080; Riverdale, 15,502; Morrow, 5,395; Jonesboro, 3,898; Lake City, 2,751; Lovejoy, 2,465
Clayton County, 5.8 percent; Georgia, 4.9 percent
Top Five Employers
Clayton County Board of Education, 7,000; Fort Gillem, Deputy Garrison Commander, 3,939; Southern Regional Health System, 2,461; Clayton County Government, 1,689;
Clayton State University, 950; Fresh Express, Inc., 850
Per Capita Income
U.S. Census Bureau,
Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Dept. of Labor