ATLANTA - Discussions about movie studio development may lead city leaders to appeal another court decision ruling in favor of Clark Atlanta University.
This week, an appeals court ruled a 13-acre portion of Morris Brown College’s campus belongs to Clark Atlanta University, and not the city, despite a 2014 purchase by the city’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta.
The ruling is the latest chapter in a three-year land dispute that goes back to Morris Brown’s bankruptcy and premium property that sits across from the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The property includes Gaines Hall, one of Atlanta’s oldest buildings, and the college’s dilapidated Herndon Stadium.
“The city of Atlanta made a huge investment and wiped away all of the debt from Morris Brown,” said Reed, speaking of the city’s $10 million contribution to the 25-acre property sale. Another undisputed portion was purchased by a nearby church.
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But the state courts have continually ruled in CAU’s favor, turning to a 1940 deed agreement. The courts guaranteed the AUC property go back to CAU if it weren’t turned to a 1940 deed agreement.
“We truly appreciate the decisions of the courts of Georgia that supported our claim to the property that belonged to us,” said Dr. Ronald Johnson, president of Clark Atlanta University.
“We’ll be making a decision about an appeal by Wednesday of next week,” said Mayor Kasim Reed on Thursday. He also said he is looking forward to warm dialogue with CAU.
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While the city has never discussed its plans for the property, Reed told investigative reporter Nicole Carr that Hollywood has shown interest in setting up shop.
“There are a number of folks who have approached us about turning that into a major motion picture studio directly connected into downtown,” Reed said. “I also think it would activate the Atlanta University schools who already have strong communication programs. That’s one of the ideas that’s been discussed certainly in the last six months.”
When Carr relayed the message to Johnson, he said he’d never heard of the talks.
“Well, the mayor knows something I don’t know,” Johnson said. “Maybe that’s why he wanted the property in the first place. I have no idea.”
Reed said the purchase kept the property from becoming home liquor stores and Dollar General stores.
The city leased a small portion of the property back to Morris Brown College, which continues to struggle with enrollment and accreditation after a federal student aid scandal in the early 2000s.
Reed pointed to that small operation as a way to interpret the 1940 deed agreement.
“You know, there were differing opinions at the time,” he said. “It wasn’t as clear that a letter agreement would be binding over all of those years, and the second part was, Morris Brown was continuing to operate.”
“It’s not about my understanding or the mayor’s understanding. It’s about what the law says,” Johnson said.
While the city plans to respond to the court’s decision by Wednesday, Johnson said the CAU board will meet in two weeks to discuss plans for the property.
Whatever the board decides, the plans will include a road map for university and student success, he said.
“We’re responsible for the assets of that university,” Johnson said. “We’re accountable, not the mayor, and therefore we must make sure that we take care of this institution.”
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