Mayor: Franklin Gateway has come far, but work isn't done

May 9—MARIETTA — This November will mark 10 years since 54% of voters approved a $68 million bond, most of it for the city to redevelop the Franklin Gateway corridor.

Back in 2013, Mayor Steve "Thunder" Tumlin claimed two victories — winning a second term in office, and getting residents' approval for a tax increase to tackle the redevelopment project.

Now in his fourth term, Tumlin calls the project a success, even if it remains incomplete.

"I think it did a world of good," he said in an interview.

But, the mayor added, "I won't consider it completely successful until everybody that bought property builds."

Crunching the numbers

The redevelopment is perhaps the signature project of Marietta's longest serving mayor.

The bond authorized the city to raise taxes by up to 2 mills for up to 20 years. Initially, the full tax increase was levied. In recent years, the mayor and council have lowered the redevelopment bond millage — it now stands at 1.375 mills.

City Manager Bill Bruton said the city owes $45.8 million on the bond. It is expected to be paid off by the start of 2034.

Money generated by the tax increase was used to purchase properties up and down Franklin Road (later renamed as Franklin Gateway). The city then demolished aging, blighted properties and sold the empty lots at artificially low prices to attract new development.

City leaders initiated the project in response to what they saw as a glut of dilapidated apartment complexes and shopping centers in the area. The corridor was suffering from high commercial and residential vacancy rates and crime.

Marietta school board members also campaigned for the bond, saying at the time that the apartments included a high number of transient students, which had negative effects on school performance and graduation rates.

In arguing its success, Tumlin and the city cite a series of statistics.

One metric is property values. From 2013 to 2022, the net tax digest value of the Franklin Gateway corridor has grown by 110%, from $343.7 million to $772.1 million.

Over the same period, the citywide net tax digest grew by 54%.

And vacancy rates have dropped across all categories. Those rates, from 2013 to 2023, are listed below:

— Multi-family: 14.3% to 7.9%

— Office: 44.2% to 5.4%

— Industrial: 18.4% to 5.8%

— Flex: 32.9% to 9.7%

— Retail: 4.1% to 0.7%

Crime had already been declining in the area from 2010-2013. The drop continued over the next decade, from 565 incidents in 2013 to 215 incidents in 2022.

While there are still empty lots on Franklin Gateway that Marietta leaders would like to see developed, the city has sold off all the properties it purchased for the project.

During the bond campaign, Tumlin was criticized by the right and left. Libertarians didn't want their taxes raised, and liberals said the mayor was displacing predominantly low-income, minority populations.

Regarding the tax increase, Tumlin said that "mathematically, this thing is a slam dunk."

With displacement, the mayor maintains the same argument that was made before the bond passed — that residents were exploited by negligent landlords, and the city had to step in.

"The conditions were horrible," he said. "Especially Latinos, the Hispanics, they don't call code enforcement. They were scared. ... There were a lot of vacancies. We did it with a good human heart to give people a good place to live."

The Marietta Housing Authority was brought in at the time to help people relocate.

In the wake of the recession, Tumlin added, some complexes were offering short-term incentives to new residents in an attempt to prevent vacancies. Often, those residents would leave after a couple of months when the incentives stopped.

"A lot of the components have been good," Tumlin said. "The fact that, you know, we displaced families, we made that choice. But most of them stayed here (in the city)."

Tumlin said owners of the apartment complexes which weren't torn down "started taking care of them, fixing doors that were off the hinges."

But even as developers have approached the city with proposals to build new apartment complexes, Tumlin remains resistant to high-density projects and rental housing. He and his allies often invoke the example of Franklin Road as a cautionary tale.

The mayor recently vetoed the council's approval of a proposal which would have replaced a Kroger slated for closure with a 322-apartment building.

Tumlin has signaled his opposition to another apartment proposal at the former Harry's Farmers Market site on Roswell Road, which will need council approval to move forward. And he's criticized Bridger Properties' plans to build a 135-unit brick apartment building off Marietta Square, which the council has little power to stop.

"I just like lower density," Tumlin said.

The council, after learning that the zoning downtown allows for apartments, passed a six-month moratorium on new apartment applications in April.

Still, he said he's not opposed to all apartment developments. He pointed to the senior housing the Marietta Housing Authority has built as positive examples.

"Are all apartments bad? That was never the case," Tumlin said. "We just built, in my opinion ... too many on this street."

Soccer hub

The most high-profile development the city has attracted to Franklin Gateway is Atlanta United's training ground. The 33-acre site opened in 2017, and boasts a 30,000-square-foot headquarters and six fields.

Just down the street, with United's help, the city built a public sports complex, which also opened in 2017. The Franklin Gateway Sports Complex consists of three lighted multipurpose soccer fields with artificial turf.

Rickey Clark, the city recreation coordinator who runs the complex, said business is booming.

In its first few years, the complex generated about $300,000 in revenue annually, Clark said. That number has grown to north of $400,000 for the past two years. He thinks 2023 will produce similar numbers, but hopes to break half a million dollars.

The fields are rented by private clubs, schools and camps. About 70% of the business is soccer and 25% is lacrosse, Clark said. The rest is a mix of other sports like touch football or kickball.

"I'm a sports fanatic, but I love youth sports," Clark said. "That's what I love the most is trying to create programs and have a safe place for kids to come play."

The complex regularly hosts hundreds of young athletes and their families. Clark said those visitors are good for the Franklin Gateway corridor's economy.

"All the hotels, all the gas stations, all the restaurants, they get it on this," he said.

Other jewels in the crown

Another Gateway addition since the bond was passed is the Home Depot Technology Center.

More offices in the area are in the works. In late 2021, the city sold a 6.7-acre site at the corner of Franklin Gateway and South Marietta Parkway to MiRus, a medical tech firm.

MiRus plans to build its new headquarters at the site, formerly home to a flea market.

After the council approved the sale, MiRus came back to the city last summer, seeking approval to use extra space on the property to build a four-story, 78-room hotel. Council members balked at the proposal, which was tabled.

"After we told them the hotel might not be a good fit, they haven't been back," Tumlin said. But he added, "I think those medical boys will (build the office), they're very successful."

Daniel Cummings, the city's economic development director, said MiRus still plans to develop "phase one" of the property — the offices — and remains in contact with city staff.

Tumlin's great white whale for the area, however, is Ikea.

In 2018, the city sold a 33.7-acre lot on Franklin Gateway to the Swedish retail giant, which planned to build a 338,000-square-foot shopping center there.

Citing a "rapidly changing retail environment" and the need to secure "the longevity of our business," Ikea paused those plans in 2020, during the pandemic.

On April 20, Ikea announced plans to invest $2.2 billion in its U.S. business over the next three years with the opening of eight new stores and smaller format stores.

The company told the MDJ it is "excited to bring IKEA closer to customers across the US," but didn't say whether the Marietta site is one of the new stores.

"We are early in the planning stages and look forward to sharing more details on our expansion plans at a later stage," Ikea said.

The mayor was excited about the company's expansion announcement, but didn't have inside information.

"They haven't called and said 'You're one of the 17,'" he said.

He remains optimistic about the proposal. Ikea has one other store in Georgia, in Atlanta. The next closest stores are in Memphis, Charlotte and Jacksonville. Tumlin said the Marietta location would attract customers from north Georgia and surrounding states without the need to venture inside the perimeter.

"I know 1940 retailers are not gonna come back ... But Ikea is so unique that I think it would help other retailers around here," he said.

Work to be done

Cummings said in the past three or four years, he's received an "immense" number of calls from developers interested in the Ikea property. As far as he knows, Ikea has rebuffed all the would-be buyers.

Cummings said that level of interest, plus the numbers, prove that the stated goals of the redevelopment bond are being met.

"Pretty much in any measurable statistics ... There's just been an immense amount of improvement. And I think along with that has come a reputational improvement," Cummings said.

In pitching Franklin Gateway to developers, Cummings and his staff point to its location and ease of access.

"The access to (Interstate) 75, its location in between Town Center and the Battery," he said. "Especially for the larger tracts, if you look up the northwest corridor, there's just not a lot of larger developable tracts."

The city's investment also shows that the local government is working to improve the area, he said, pointing to the bond, the creation of the Gateway Marietta Community Improvement District, development of the Rottenwood Creek Trail, and more.

The CID, Tumlin said, has improved public safety with more security cameras.

"Residential people cannot join the CID, so we're a little limited to their firepower, but they're doing a good job," Tumlin said.

Cummings also highlighted beautification projects the CID has performed.

"If somebody moves there, they know that it's an area where the city has been invested and continues to be, and now the CID gets to continue the investment," Cummings said.

The mayor feels the best is yet to come. It will take time and diligence to see the project through, he said.

"Not like instant grits," he added.