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Cover Story: Goat Farm Economics

Can art and good old-fashioned capitalism breathe new life into one of Atlanta's most historic and overlooked neighborhoods?

One day in early July, in a circa 1910 building on South Broad Street, Elizabeth Jarrett and Kris Pilcher discovered a jar of human teeth.

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The three-story, 28,000-square-foot South Downtown building had until recently been the office of dentist Dr. Dennis Jaffe. Allegations of Medicaid fraud put an end to the enterprise. (Jaffe settled with the feds this summer.)

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The teeth were just one of the relics Jarrett, a theater producer, and Pilcher, a visual artist, found when they took over the building to launch their new venture, the Downtown Players Club.

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Jarrett and Pilcher have big plans for the space, which includes two storefronts, offices, and, on the second and third floors, 20-foot ceilings. They want to rip out carpet in the lobby and install holographic floors. The old window where patients once gave nurses their names will become a box office. Jaffe's former office and the adjacent storefront will become a black box theater, dressing room, rehearsal spaces, a resource center, and production design area. Upstairs, in a more than 100-foot-long room with surprisingly well-preserved hardwood floors, the team will build a performance space. Pilcher will take the adjacent room, where three large windows look out at Mammal Gallery and a HENSE and Born mural across the street.

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"The design theme we're going for is space cowboy," Jarrett says with a laugh, talking about the lobby. "Blade Runner meets From Dusk Till Dawn. We wanted something that was artful when you walk in the building itself because of how the street looks and not the industrial aesthetic. It's too easy."

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For now, both are living downstairs. Only a pane of glass separates them from a street that sees minimal activity during the day, despite being next door to the Sam Nunn Federal Center and its nearly 5,000 employees, and more illicit acts at night. The space is a godsend for two young artists who have plenty of passion. It also presents a challenge: Pilcher estimates it will cost at least $10,000-$20,000 to renovate to suit their plans. A total overhaul could cost $1 million, he guesses.

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"I'm viewing this as the largest art project I've ever done," Pilcher says.

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In the last few years, Broad Street has been buzzing with artistic expression and progressive thinking. Elevate, the city's Downtown-focused public art event, brought murals the size of buildings in 2012. Two artists took over an abandoned former nightclub as part of Dashboard's No Vacancy the following year. Mammal Gallery now occupies that space. Eyedrum relocated to the other side of the block on nearby Forsyth Street in 2014. Now one of the city's most creative real estate companies and a force in Atlanta's art world is taking its for-profit business model to the area.

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For the last year, the Goat Farm Arts Center has been quietly working with building owners along Broad Street to take a risk on artists and other creative people. The pitch of the program, dubbed Beacons, is simple: Offer below-market rents, space for the artists to express themselves, and give the neighborhood life again. The Goat Farm, with its strong network of contractors and construction experts, is helping to renovate the buildings to suit the artists' needs and wants.

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It's the traditional artists-take-over-a-neighborhood-and-make-it-cool process, just on steroids. The process typically ends with artists packing up and moving elsewhere. This time there's a catch: The Goat Farm is using its real-estate prowess and expertise to try to break that cycle in South Downtown, an undervalued pocket that on nearly all sides has the development machine breathing down its neck.

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Since Hallister Development partners Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse purchased the 12-acre former textile mill in 2010 for $7 million, the Goat Farm Arts Center has evolved into arguably the city's most creative outpost. Its two main spaces, Goodson Yard and the Rodriguez Room, have hosted thousands of events, film shoots, and — until 2012 — weddings. (Disclosure: My wife and I held our wedding ceremony in Goodson Yard.)

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But to call the property an arts commune or center would be be inaccurate. The buildings now host scientists, engineers, writers, tech companies, and architecture firms.

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Before Hallister purchased the property from Robert Haywood, the eccentric Wisconsin native who brought in goats to combat kudzu — according to Goat Farm lore, he did not anticipate the animals' reproductive tendencies — there were plans for a mixed-use development like those that exist on the Westside today. But the Great Recession and what they realized the Goat Farm already had in spades changed their plans.

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When the firm took over the property, only two artists remained on the property. The team decided to renovate the buildings and try a non-traditional development centered around — and which would fund — the arts. From that evolved the Goat Farm business model.

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When talking with Harper about the model and property, there is a lot of language you would probably not encounter in a meeting with a Post Properties executive over filet mignon at the Commerce Club. "Gravity centers." "Gatekeepers." "Information vortex." But Hallister, the Goat Farm staff, and the tenants have been able to build and sustain something greater than a typical real estate project.

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Shortly after purchasing the Goat Farm, Harper, a California native and military brat who worked as an investment banker in New York and Paris, told Creative Loafing that he wanted the center to do something virtually unheard of: act as a for-profit arts incubator by investing some the property's revenues in creating interesting programming.

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The Goat Farm receives more than 180 submissions a week proposing events or programming at the site. A review board vets them and decides which should be offered what the center calls "Arts Investment Packages." Recipients receive the full support of the center's production and digital teams plus use of the Westside space. Artists keep 100 percent of ticket and art sales. Harper estimates that the packages add up to an annual value of approximately $200,000 to $250,000. (Disclosure: Creative Loafing partnered with the Goat Farm to produce its annual Best of Atlanta party and was a recipient of an AIP in 2012, 2014, and 2015.) 

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The result has not only added to the city's culture, it's also created buzz, which in turn created interest in the Goat Farm. That meant Hallister didn't have to spend cash on marketing or time giving tours. Right now the waiting list to secure a space in the complex is 500 names long. Though he declined to discuss specific financials, Harper says the Goat Farm is profitable.

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Several years after launching the Goat Farm model, the property has placed 490 practitioners in its nearly 180,000 square feet of studio space. Cultural, civic, and business leaders are paying attention.

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When the Goat Farm started asking tenants what drew them to the property, some responded that they liked the architecture or simply needed space. But a large number — Harper says around 60 percent — said in some form that they were drawn to the complex because of its progressive programming and ideas.

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Around the same time as they reached out to tenants, Harper's wife pointed him to Geoffrey West, a British physicist whose research helped fuel urban studies guru Richard Florida's writing on the much-discussed creative class. West found, Harper says, that density encourages innovation.

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Harper says one reason the Goat Farm has proven so successful is because of its density. It's been able to "make a lot of noise" in the city and get noticed. But Atlanta, one of the least dense cities in the country, has relatively few pockets of such activity, which makes it difficult to get noticed on a national or international level. That diffusion of people makes it a challenge for the city to, in Harper's mind, "turn up the volume" and create lots of activity. Activity creates excitement, which sparks innovation, attracts bright minds, and helps retain those already here.

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Last year, the Goat Farm decided to take one year off of programming — it produced 150 events the prior year — and focus on projects that would benefit the city. Harper turned his eyes toward South Downtown.

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In a city that's short on the authentic urban experience and quickly losing its history, Broad Street is a rarity. Its wide sidewalks, two- and three-story buildings built around the late 1800s and early 1900s are a snapshot of Atlanta's past and what it could be again one day. Once a lively street lined with businesses — at one time it was dubbed Produce Row — Broad and other parts of South Downtown fell into limbo when development began its march north along Peachtree Street in the mid-1900s.

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Today South Downtown is a concentration of 9-to-5 government buildings, surface-parking lots, and plenty of opportunity. It has nearly everything a neighborhood could need — a walkable street grid, two MARTA rail stops, history — it just needs people. Aside from the artists, a pharmacy, a homeless service organization, and a perfume shop, Broad is vacant — a cut-through to MARTA, the city jail, or the Greyhound bus station. Thanks to the fact that the street is isolated from Downtown shops, offices, and residences, it has become a regular spot for drug deals and loitering.

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South Downtown's predicament began to change in the last few years. One of the first to arrive in South Downtown during the most recent wave of artist migration was C4 Atlanta, a nonprofit that helps creatives launch careers and learn business skills, in the overhauled M. Rich Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Chris Yonker and Brian Egan left the Westside warehouse they inhabited called the Office and opened Mammal. Recording studio the Broad Street Visitors Center snagged a spot in a former liquor store. Eyedrum, an Atlanta institution in alternative arts, scored a $1 a year lease for a block of storefronts along Forsyth Street. Creative Loafing moved in on the floor above C4.

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An authentic arts district — or "progressive district," Harper says — began to form without much outside help. Harper and his team decided to try to take the Goat Farm model and apply it to another part of town — one where it did not currently own any property — to help build density. They came up with an idea. First they'd help artists navigate lease negotiations and sign below-market rates on some of the vacant properties along Broad Street. Then they'd assist with renovations to help the space suit artists' needs. Finally they'd educate tenants on how to generate extra income from the spaces and use that to eventually buy the buildings, protect from rent shocks, or help others focus on the arts.

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? ? Joeff Davis? ? ? NEXT STEPS: The Mammal Gallery’s Chris Yonker (left) and Brian Egan, with Beacons’ help recently converted excess space in their basement to artist studios. Yonker wants to see the spaces house different types of artists and practitioners to foster collaboration.? ? ?
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? ? Joeff Davis? ? ? HIGHER GROUND: Egan and Yonker, photographed on Mammal’s roof, moved to South Downtown from the Westside, where they had a performance space called The Office. ? ? ??
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With the help of an intern who's studied city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, Goat Farm employees Mark DiNatale, Mercer West, Allie Bashuk (an occasional CL contributor), and Tian Justman started reviewing property records, mapping parcel availability, and contacting property owners or brokers. Some of the owners expressed skepticism, Bashuk says.

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"They have a lot more to lose by not doing anything than they do by trusting us," DiNatale says. "Because the buildings are deteriorating, they're still paying property taxes, maintenance over the time. If you add all that up, you lose a lot more than if we can put a tenant in, get the building fixed up, do that across the street, throughout the whole street. It will stop the deterioration of the building, the loss of revenue from taxes and insurance, and really stabilize the value."

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Potential tenants come to Beacons looking for space or the Goat Farm team approaches them. The artists' business needs determine what potential space might work best. Though it does not act as a leasing agent, Beacons helps both sides — the landlord or broker and the artist — learn each other's language.

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With the help of a large Rolodex of contractors and specialists, Goat Farm crews, some of the same workers who build out sets and prep for events, then come in to the space and make repairs, build walls, and, in the case of the Downtown Players Club, help clean up pigeon poop. Tenants pay for the materials. Sean Haley, who oversees the crews that are swinging hammers, says tenants are expected to participate in the work. The interplay helps build a relationship.

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"Instead of walking into that space, Downtown Players Club doesn't have to look at it and go, 'Oh my God. How am I going to do this?'" Harper says. "They can walk into it and go, 'How are we going to do this?' ... Oftentimes, that's all they need. It's that confidence to say they're not doing it alone."

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The third part of the initiative combines something that Harper and Melhouse found successful with the Goat Farm: Where feasible, help the South Broad tenants find and make excess space that they can sublet to create reliable streams of income. For Downtown Players Club that means rehearsal spaces on the first floor or the second floor performance space. Beacons has also offered other South Broad tenants, including non-artists, their services for the greater good. With the Goat Farm's help, Mammal Gallery recently created six studio spaces in its basement that are available for rent. The offer also extends to the other tenants, including those who don't own the buildings, to help keep the buildings in good repair, make additional income, and prevent potential displacement if the neighborhood bounces back.

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Along the way, artists get a crash course in real estate and learning how to build an income stream that could one day go toward buying the building they now rent. Or having something that artists in New York, Los Angeles, and, yes, Atlanta, have lacked when a developer decides to build a condo development on top of a music rehearsal space: a voice.

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"You always hear that horror story of the artists get in, because it's cheap rent. They do their thing, attract all these new people. The buildings become more expensive. Then the artists get kicked out," Yonker says. "That's like the story that I hear from everybody. You know, we're not going to let that happen to us so easily. We're going to buy our building. If this neighborhood ever does become expensive or a place we don't want to be, we'll at least benefit from our hard work being here and turning it into a place that people want to be."

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The Goat Farm isn't charging the creatives they help any money. But to Harper the benefits are many. He's upfront about Goat Farm potentially scouting property in South Downtown, as many local and international firms are already doing. It's helping foster the same type of environment at the Goat Farm, which creates buzz and excitement, ultimately keeping the demand for space at the center high. And if Beacons helps Broad become a progressive district humming with activity, it could show the rest of the country and world a true representation of Atlanta's spirit, talent, and present.

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"The arts is the best mutually beneficial business partner we've ever had," he says. "I wish the city would develop a deeper understanding that progressive arts activity could generate more revenue for the city — in property taxes, new businesses, ideas, and a more diverse labor pool — by attracting new citizens."

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He also sees Beacons as helping to activate the business side of artists' minds. He says there's too often a perception that money can taint the arts. Sure, money can do bad things, he says. But it can be a tool to buy time to fund the things a person is passionate about. Real estate is a great way to complement those ambitions in the arts, he says, because done right it can make space available for others to pursue their passions.

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"I think it's a better model," Harper says. "It's going to make us more money, but it allows us to do some good along the way. Doing good helps us make money. That's why we've come to just practice that. We're always trying to practice conscious capitalism. How do we do some good and make money doing it?"

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And if one day in the future, Starbucks or a casino appears and eyes one of the South Broad properties, and the Downtown Players Club and Murmur are now the owners, they can tell them to take a walk, fine tune what's proposed, or sit down and talk numbers. And then they'll have cash to fund their passion.

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"What if Mammal in the future, they're millionaires and the ones making decisions?" Bashuk says. "How awesome would that be? That's the future we want."

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Yonker and Egan are eager to begin negotiations on their building. Yonker is also looking at other opportunities in the neighborhood.

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A wall of rainbows, bottles filled with all-natural oils, and concoctions, awaits customers of Taj Perfumes on South Broad. The shop is located just a vacant storefront or two away from Mammal Gallery. Behind the counter stands Shakoor Mintu, a wide-grinning Bangladesh-born man and his son, Ezaz.

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Mintu left behind his family in Bangladesh in 1984 and came to the United States, landing in New York City, where he worked in a Greek restaurant. He saved up and eventually bought his own Asian grocery store in Brooklyn. Five years later, when the weather, rent, and concerns about his children's futures became too much to bear, he headed south to Atlanta.

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When he arrived on Broad Street, there were two convenience stores along the street. There was more foot traffic on the wide sidewalks outside his building, which he owns. Today there are still pedestrians, but also people loitering. Mintu will stand at his counter or in the doorway when he sees a customer approaching from the parking lot, or walking for the twice-a-day prayer session in the Islamic Center located on the second floor of the adjacent building, which he also owns, to make sure they don't encounter trouble. Business is down, but he remains happy. If you do good things, Mintu says, you will receive blessings.

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Over the past two years, the shop owner has noticed more and more people coming in and out of the buildings and moving in to the new spaces. He's friendly with them and welcomes more.

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"The more diversity we have, the better," he says.

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So does Richard Miller, the owner of Miller's Rexall Drugs, the neighborhood fixture offering a mix of natural supplements and hoodoo potions. Miller owns his building and Mammal Gallery's, and was the first property owner on the block to welcome an arts organization as seeds started being planted years ago before Beacons began. He partnered with Kyle Kessler, the president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association who lives in the Kessler Lofts across the street and now is working on the South Downtown Initiative, a program operated out of the Center for Civic Innovation that aims to address the community's issues ranging from wooing new residential development to helping the homeless. The duo tried to find ways to start activating vacant storefronts.

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"I'm tickled pink," says Miller, who's added a Coca-Cola machine to serve his new neighbors, LED lights for shows, and plans to soon start offering healthy snacks. He's even planning to offer 24 feet of shelf space along one of his walls for artists to exhibit their work and expose them to the daytime crowd he serves. "We've had stores come and go but this is a complete change to the neighborhood."

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Patrick Myers, the self-appointed "Mayor of Broad Street" who's been keeping watch over the stores for going on 20 years, is pleased. He's become close with Yonker and Egan, attending shows and watching over the other tenants' property.

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"It is for the better," he says. "There are a lot of new faces. Normally they wouldn't come."

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But too often they come at night, when arts organizations host events. The next step, one that could improve safety, which is an ongoing concern, and help make South Broad feel less like an island and more like a neighborhood, comes with filling more spaces with daytime businesses.

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With the ongoing investment comes the question of whether those who are on Broad Street won't be priced out or pushed along — that whether even the investment of artists, usually the first spark of real-estate development, will displace the community that has been there long before. Myers says many of those people have already been displaced long ago.

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Goat Farm staffers and the artists say they're well aware of the potential consequences of their actions on Broad and the area. Haley says people who have themselves been pushed out of areas because of rising rents are particularly sensitive to the issue and don't want to cause it themselves.

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Dan Bailey, the co-owner of the Broad Street Visitors Center, says how Beacons and the new community will interact and evolve with the old — or whatever is left of it, as the storefronts are mostly vacant — offers the greatest lessons.

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"The most interesting thing about Beacons for me is when we do consider what the future of the street will be like and when we do run into problems with people hanging out on the street," he says. "Trying to find considerate ways to go over everything, make sure we're not excluding people who are here. Trying to find out how we go about it morally and not let it snowball into something that we would regret or not feel sound about."

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? ? Joeff Davis? ? ? FORGOTTEN END: Before 2012’s Elevate, Broad Street was lifeless, boarded-up, and waiting for a purpose. Longtime tenants hope South Downtown remains inclusive and diverse.? ? ?
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? ? Joeff Davis? ? ? A homeless man sleeps on South Broad street. ? ? ??
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And they're hoping to address any issues on a case-by-case basis, rather than with a general umbrella approach. Harper, who sits on SDI's steering committee, says the team is trying to place someone in the ground-floor space of Mintu's adjacent building, which Mintu says he has never rented. Beacons is also offering to make needed repairs to help ease any financial burden. At the Giving Back to Humanity Center down the street, Beacons is talking with the homeless resource provider about potentially renting excess space for a tea shop on the six days of the week the space sits vacant and using the rent revenues to fuel the nonprofit's mission. Around the corner on Mitchell Street, a Guyanese restaurant owner wants musicians to perform during the daytime and has offered to remain open after hours to provide at least one food option to revelers and arts enthusiasts, Harper and Kessler say. Artists have reached out to people on the street — and vice versa — to help with construction projects and potential arts opportunities at the spaces. Those efforts won't alone solve the numerous issues that call South Downtown home, but could at least spark higher-ups at City Hall, Fulton County, the state, and even federal government, to pay more attention to the asset under their noses.

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It's the activity — people coming and going, mixing with one another — that Kessler hopes will take the initiative started by the arts community and now fueled by the Goat Farm, one step further so that the area outside of South Broad, the greater neighborhood, can get back to being what it was decades ago.

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"I think the next critical moment in what's going to either determine its long-term success or whether it gets cut off short will be whether the folks who are coming and wanting to participate are able to be here as much as they want," he says. "By that, I mean they can find a place in immediate proximity where they can live."



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