Doraville’s bold GM investment

Fortune favors the bold, wrote Virgil in his epic, “The Aeneid.” It’s one of my favorite quotes and it rings true particularly in the process of economic development. In the early 1940s, DeKalb County Commissioner Scott Candler shrugged off a barrage of criticism when he proposed a $1 million bond issuance for a new water plant just north of Doraville. Completed in 1942, the new system featured a 30-inch water main that ran to the edge of the Southern Railway and the future General Motors site.

In 1944, GM chose Doraville, a fledgling agrarian community, as the site of its new assembly plant because of its robust water capacity. The water system, combined with the state’s promise of an $800,000, four-lane expansion of Peachtree Road, ultimately sealed the deal. The Doraville GM plant, along with the new “Peachtree Industrial Boulevard” opened in 1947.

The GM plant breathed new life into Doraville and ushered in an economic boom for North Atlanta. By 1949, that $1.8 million investment was credited with attracting more than $75 million in industrial development to north DeKalb.

Fast forward 75 years.

Candler’s bold actions provide a valuable lesson for us today. Integral Macauley + Schmit’s “Assembly,” the vision for the former General Motors property, certainly qualifies as bold. Roughly 25 acres bigger than Atlantic Station, Assembly will indeed be a city within a city, replete with new urbanist and quality-growth concepts. Situated next to the Doraville MARTA station, Assembly will feature trendy hot-spots, neighborhoods and a corporate campus, spurring possibly 8,000 new jobs.

According to a recent study by the Bleakly Advisory Group, the development will represent nearly $2 billion in private investment with a net impact of more than $2.5 billion over the next 10 years. Coupled with the anticipated redevelopment of 124 acres east of the MARTA station, the projected growth is even more staggering.

According to the Bleakly study, the combined area (289 acres) currently represents about $40 million in assessed tax value, generating about $1.7 million in property tax revenue for Doraville, DeKalb County and the DeKalb school district. After a 25-year buildout, that assessed value is expected to reach $800 million, or $29 million in additional property tax revenue for the three tax jurisdictions.

But there’s never any gain without a little pain, right?

Economic development and infrastructure investment go hand-in-hand. They always have and they always will. Mind you, Integral Macauley Schmit’s plan envisions a dense, urban-style of development and in order to support this level of density, Doraville’s antiquated infrastructure – designed to support industry – has to be retrofitted. The costs associated with the upgrades are expected to reach $200 million.

So how do we pay for it?

The Bleakly study was a legal prerequisite to creating a tax allocation district. Think of it as the TAD’s feasibility study, which gauges future growth and determines the amount of bonds a jurisdiction can issue. Based on the projected growth, the study determined we may be able to issue up to $293 million in revenue bonds. These bonds are repaid over a 25-year term through the district’s incremental tax growth. So for 25 years, the three jurisdictions will continue to receive the base $1.7 million in revenue. As the district builds out, the positive increment or increasing revenues are used to retire the bonds. At the end of the term, the positive increment or new tax growth ($29 million) becomes a windfall. So a TAD is neither a tax break for developers, nor does it mean a tax increase for residents.

Economies evolve and change over time. Infrastructure has to change with it. What was good for a farming community didn’t suffice for what was needed to support industry. What was needed to support industry is not adequate for an innovation-oriented economy. The one thing that doesn’t change is the bold undertaking of public investment.

Donna Pittman, a DeKalb County native, is mayor of Doraville.

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