It was an “impossible” piece of land sitting in multiple counties and cities, governed partially by Federal Aviation Administration regulations and even including a creek under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Joseph Folz, general counsel for Porsche Cars North America Inc., didn’t know how his company would ever own the parcel where it had the “crazy” idea to build its new North American headquarters and test track.
“You couldn’t make up a more complex site than this,” Mr. Folz told Global Atlanta. “I’m not too embarrassed to admit, when we first looked at this site, I distinctly remember saying, ‘It’s a great site, it’s a great place for the Porsche Driving Experience, it’s about the only place near town that we could do this, but we’ll never get it done.'”
Three years later, the German automaker’s U.S. subsidiary is the proud owner of 56 acres at Aerotropolis Atlanta, a mixed use development on the former site of a Ford plant near the airport’s new international terminal on Interstate 75. Jacoby Development, the mastermind behind Atlantic Station, is leading the project.
The uniqueness of the airport site caused Porsche to select it over 73 others in three states, according to Mr. Folz.
After that, it was Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport officials, including General Manager Louis Miller, who guided the process along, facilitating meetings of the various stakeholders.
The level of collaboration “surprised” Mr. Folz and other Porsche executives, especially considering the airport’s sometimes contentious history with surrounding communities on expansion projects.
“Because of that, and because of the stories we had heard, we were expecting it to be a big problem,” Mr. Folz said, noting that those fears turned out to be unfounded.
Mr. Folz’s comments came on the sidelines of the Feb. 20 South Metro Development Outlook conference, which focuses on communities south of Interstate 20. He spoke on a panel exploring how the region could better harness the economic potential of the world’s busiest airport.
That question has been heavy on the minds of area leaders of late.
The Atlanta Regional Commission in June 2012 convened what’s known for now as the Airport Area Task Force, a loose group of regional leaders from business, government and economic development circles, to discuss how their communities can unite behind common vision for an “aerotropolis.”
John Kasarda, the University of North Carolina business professor who popularized the concept of a globally connected economic area anchored and driven by an airport, said during a November speech at Georgia State University that Atlanta had yet to fully capitalize on its jewel, calling the city a “Formula One engine with a station wagon’s body.”
He said an aerotropolis would develop here but warned that its effectiveness in creating jobs and vitality would hinge on the formulation of a central plan with a leader strong and diplomatic enough to drive the necessary investment.
Porsche’s relocation was the “watershed moment” that made area leaders realize the importance of this vision, said Jon Tuley, a planner who has been helping lead the task force at the regional commission.
Now, the group has to iron out its permanent identity and funding mechanism. Multiple models have been explored at quarterly meetings, including Partnership Gwinnett, the public-private effort in Gwinnett County that has been lauded by economic development leaders around the nation.
At the outlook conference, leaders were unsure whether a new entity was necessary, but they all agreed that there should be a keen focus on collaborative regional development.
Eldrin Bell, former chairman of the Clayton County Commission, told Global Atlanta that interactions in the past haven’t always been amiable, but that the ongoing conversations have been encouraging.
“It’s a model that’s yet to be developed but certainly needed,” he said of the ARC-led task force.
During the panel discussion, Mr. Miller, the airport general manager, said collaboration is made all the more urgent given the land constraints at Hartsfield-Jackson. The airport only owns 4,700 acres, compared with 16,000 at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and 25,000 at Denver International Airport.
“Sometimes the aerotropolis … can be developed on airport land, but in Atlanta at Hartsfield-Jackson that’s just not possible, so what we have to do is make sure we work together,” Mr. Miller said.
It remains to be seen how the airport’s 2030 master plan, due for completion at the end of the year, will dovetail with the efforts of the task force.
“While the airport really can’t drive development off the airport, we certainly work very hard to make sure that that happens around the airport,” Mr. Miller said.
One model of success is the Gateway Center, a mixed use development on the western side of Interstate 85 in College Park, which connects with the airport via the ATL SkyTrain. Located adjacent to the Georgia International Convention Center and the rental car center, it includes six floors of office space at full occupancy and a successful Marriott hotel.
Porsche hopes that other companies will follow its lead on the opposite side of the airport.
“We’d love to see other corporate headquarters. We’d really love to see it turn into the type of live-work-play community that you’ve seen aerotropolis areas turn into,” Mr. Folz said.
If nothing else, the location should attract international visitors anxious to test out a Porsche’s capabilities.
“If you’ve got a four-hour layover, you can spend two of it at the Porsche driving experience,” said Mr. Folz.
The Airport Area Task Force is holding its quarterly meeting March 1 from 9:00-10:30 a.m. at the airport’s technical support campus at 1255 South Loop Road, College Park, Ga. 30337. RSVP to Jon Tuley at firstname.lastname@example.org.