The unfinished business of DeKalb County’s land swap with Blackhall Studios

A parcel map presentation provided by Blackhall Studios.

DeKalb County, GA — New details have emerged in DeKalb County’s efforts to turn swampy flood plains into dollars, and environmental groups have taken notice.

Stop the Swap, a group born out of the threat to swap land in South DeKalb County, said the last two years have been riddled with lies.

In October 2020, DeKalb County Board of Commissioners voted to swap with Blackhall Studios 53 acres of land on Constitution Road for 40 acres of nearby Intrenchment Creek Park. Blackhall Studios’ CEO Ryan Millsap promised DeKalb County he would put $1.5 million into building a new park, trails and wetland restoration.

Last week, Millsap announced he was selling Blackhall Studios to Commonwealth Group, a Los Angeles private equity firm, for $120 million with no promise for community engagement. That leaves an open questiona bout whether the promises Blackhall made will come to pass.

Blackhall Studios is home to television and film productions including “Lovecraft County,” “Doctor Sleep” and “Jumanji: The Next Level.”

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and COO Zach Williams supported the land swap deal in part because Millsap promised 5,000 jobs for DeKalb County residents and an internship program for nearby McNair High School.

According to reporting by the Atlanta Business Chronicle, Millsap in December 2020 filed plans for another 1-million-square-foot expansion to add sound stages, offices, warehousing and catering space.

In February, Blackhall obtained 40 acres of county parkland north of its existing campus.

Joe Perry, member of Stop the Swap, said Millsap has “spent the last two years hiding his plans, obscuring facts and outright lying to residents about his intentions.”

“[Millsap] admitted the new owners of Blackhall are not beholden to keep any of the empty promises he made. And now, we find out not only is he clear cutting 40-plus acres at Intrenchment Creek Park, but he’s also purchased 170-plus acres immediately south of Constitution Lakes and right on the South River that he also plans to clear of all trees,” said Perry, a DeKalb County resident.

“He doesn’t care about our city in a forest or the long-term health and well-being of our community,” Perry added. “He only cares about making money.”

Millsap said the sale of Blackhall Studios was a year in the making. But former DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon told Decaturish that DeKalb commissioners had no knowledge a sale was in the works when the land swap was approved.

Gannon said, “I continue to be opposed to the land swap. Now that we see the recent Blackhall deal, it is clear [Millsap] needed to have the land to make the deal go through. What they had and what they gave to the county was not buildable. Who purchases a large swath of floodplain, and for what purpose?”

Gannon is skeptical about jobs promised to DeKalb County residents. According to Dun and Bradstreet, Blackhall employs nine people and generates $736,526 in sales.

“Pay attention to the promise of 5,000 jobs,” Gannon said.

Commissioner Jeff Rader voiced criticism for the land swap in 2020, but could not be reached for comment.

The next big impact to the area could be the city of Atlanta’s plan to turn the old Atlanta Prison Farm into a police training complex. South River Watershed Alliance started a petition against building on the land at 1420 Key Road SE in Atlanta. The land once housed a 300-acre former experimental prison camp, and now straddles both city of Atlanta and DeKalb County.

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