DeKalb County, Blackhall Studios close land swap deal

A parcel map detailing the landswap provided by BlackHall studios.

DeKalb County, GA — Blackhall Studios and DeKalb County have closed a land swap deal in South DeKalb County.

Blackhall Studios is swapping 53 acres of its land on Constitution Road for 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park, which abuts Constitution Lakes. DeKalb County Commissioners approved the deal in October.

The company announced the closing of the deal on Friday, Feb. 5.

“Ryan Millsap CEO of Blackhall Studios announces the land exchange of the Dekalb properties has been closed,”the company said. “After almost two years of conversation and pursuit, this exchange has culminated in what Millsap believes is a wonderful example of a balance between commerce and nature.”

That conversation has been contentious.

In the early 2000s the Arthur M. Blank Foundation paid for the purchase of Intrenchment Creek Park and nearby Constitution Lakes. Former DeKalb County commissioner Kathie Gannon, who voted against the land-swap agreement, said DeKalb County never developed the land because of a lack of funds.

Millsap is a real estate executive who has purchased multiple tracts of land in DeKalb County.

“Since the day that Jay Scott recommended that I exchange my 53 acres along Bouldercrest for a small part of Intrenchment Creek Park, I was convinced that it was best for the community. I feel that today more than ever,” Millsap said in the announcement from Blackhall Studios. “In the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that this property on Bouldercrest Road is very valuable for the future of our neighbors.”

In January 2019, Blackhall proposed spending $3.8 million to improve the land as part of the swap. That changed during the 20-month negotiation with DeKalb County, and caused distrust from stakeholders.

Shannon Lee, senior urban conservation manager for The Conservation Fund, and nearby resident of Intrenchment Creek Park, previously said, “The land swap is not only a bad legal precedent that will put parks across Metro Atlanta at risk, but it’s also a terrible deal for the environment. And now at the very last minute, Blackhall is pulling a bait and switch and this deal is going from bad to worse. Blackhall promised $3.8 million for park investments and community benefits. Now they only want to give $1.5 million in ‘in-kind’ services, meaning Blackhall does the work however they like and then they claim success. Residents have no input on the design and taxpayers will inevitably be on the hook for anything not covered, or more likely, the project will be left incomplete.”

County officials who backed the deal disagree.

“DeKalb County is grateful for the public-private agreement with The Trust for Public Land and The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to exchange 40 acres in Intrenchment Creek Park for a reimagined 53 acres along Bouldercrest for better community use,” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said in the press release. “Residents in the area and all visitors to the park will now have a greenspace that better meets the recreational needs and addresses the environmental concerns and ideals of the community.”

Here is the full announcement from Blackhall Studios:

Atlanta, GA – Ryan Millsap CEO of Blackhall Studios announces the land exchange of the Dekalb properties has been closed. After almost two years of conversation and pursuit, this exchange has culminated in what Millsap believes is a wonderful example of a balance between commerce and nature.

“Since the day that Jay Scott recommended that I exchange my 53 acres along Bouldercrest for a small part of Intrenchment Creek Park, I was convinced that it was best for the community. I feel that today more than ever,” said Ryan Millsap, CEO of Blackhall Studios. “In the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that this property on Bouldercrest Road is very valuable for the future of our neighbors.”

“DeKalb County is grateful for the public-private agreement with The Trust for Public Land and The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to exchange 40 acres in Intrenchment Creek Park for a reimagined 53 acres along Bouldercrest for better community use,” said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. “Residents in the area and all visitors to the park will now have a greenspace that better meets the recreational needs and addresses the environmental concerns and ideals of the community.”

The land Blackhall Studios provides has been coined “The Great Park Connection,” because the new 53 acres for DeKalb will connect Intrenchment Creek and Gresham Park and result in 1000 consecutive acres going from Constitution Lake to Sugar Creek Golf Course.

Additionally, the expansion of Blackhall Studios will help create more jobs and assist in the growing demand for film infrastructure in Georgia. “As it turns out, approximately 1650 members live in the DeKalb County,” according to Mike Akins, Business Agent for IATSE Local 479, the labor union representing film and television workers in the state of Georgia.

Over the last year and a half, hundreds of neighbors have put in tireless hours in support of a new park and jobs in Southwest DeKalb County. “The land exchange is about bringing more access and more amenities to these long-standing communities to support their sustainability and quality of life,” said Commissioner Larry Johnson. “More access + more amenities = enhanced equity and economic advancement.”

“The exchange provides the county with more acreage of green space, added connectivity to surrounding communities, continued and enhanced access to the PATH system, as well as increased lighting and other security enhancements,” said Southwest DeKalb Neighborhood Association Chair, Alison Clark.

The 13-acre meadow will become a playground which will be a gathering place for all neighborhoods and others just like Piedmont Park. The exchange will provide a contiguous greenspace network with more access to trails and community gathering spaces for the neighborhoods it serves.

“The exchange comes with an introduction of new and greatly needed sidewalks, increasing connectivity; lighted safety call boxes, offering enhanced security; the largest ADA playground in the metro area, providing enrichment to our children; increased property values; programs to improve area schools offering unique learning experiences; and a host of other advantages,” said Clark.

“We are so thankful that Blackhall Studios chose to locate in our neighborhood, and now to expand in it,” said Pat Culp, President of the Cedar Grove Neighborhood Association. “We are excited that they are working to become the largest company of its type in the world. We believe their trajectory will bring more jobs to this part of our county, and that in time, grocery stores, restaurants, shopping and other amenities will follow.”

“I am so pleased to see the completion of the land exchange as Ryan Millsap’s development is so important to this part of DeKalb County and the impact its development will have on the Metro South CID,” said Emory Morsberger, Executive Director of the Metro South CID. “We are absolute cheerleaders for Ryan Millsap and the way that he has come into our area, bringing business, participating in our meetings and seeing a vision for DeKalb like none other.”

“I want to thank so many supporters and over 2,000 residents who have signed our petition in person to support this land exchange,” said Millsap. “To people who have expressed doubts about our intent, who are dedicated to improving southwest DeKalb – let’s find ways to work together on future projects. We have common goals that are best pursued together.”

Here are additional images provided by Blackhall Studios.

A parcel map presentation provided by Blackhall Studios.
Image provided by Blackhall studios.
The 13-acre meadow will become a playground which will be a gathering place, Blackhall Studios says. Image provided to the Tucker Observer

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Writer Logan Ritchie contributed to this story.