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20 People to Watch - Brian Hooker: The dealmaker

The Beltline's former real estate director has landed an even bigger role: overseeing Fort McPherson's redevelopment. Will he help transform nearly 500 acres of southwest ATL into something that benefits residents?

Brian Hooker lives for opportunity. Or so he says. I lose count of how many times the veteran real estate official says the "O-word" during our 90-minute conservation at his office. He uses it frequently to discuss purchasing land for himself, his clients, and the Atlanta Beltline over the last decade. He also uses the word to describe his recent hiring as the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority's executive director, aka the man responsible for overseeing the redevelopment of nearly 500 acres within Fort McPherson's 130-year-old walls.

"What we're doing here is going to impact the city for the next 200 years. It's a rare opportunity," Hooker says.

The West End native didn't originally want to become a developer. He instead studied math and science in high school and electrical engineering at Stanford University. He returned home to work for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, followed by a four-year stint with IBM. He then helped found a startup called Luxcore that built Ethernet switches. The company grew quickly in its first year but crashed once the dot-com bubble burst.

After nearly a decade working in technology, Hooker decided to pursue a real estate career. He enrolled in a program designed to bring minorities into the world of commercial real estate and landed a position with national firm CBRE. Over seven years, he learned the ropes of the industry from brokering transactions to negotiating economic incentives for relocating corporations. He also learned how to break into an old-school industry largely controlled by affluent white men.

"I felt like I was in a time warp," he says. "It was a white guy's club."

In 2011, Hooker became the real estate director at Atlanta Beltline, Inc., where he led efforts to buy land that became part of the Westside Trail. He saw the Beltline's potential not only to connect neighborhoods, but also to spark development in a historically disinvested part of the city. One of the biggest examples of potential was located one mile south of the smart-growth project: Fort McPherson.

A decade ago, a federal commission ordered the U.S. army base to shut down. MILRA, which first formed in 2007, eventually approved a reuse plan that featured a mixed-use bioscience hub. The feds signed off on the proposal in 2011, but the lead developer backed out of the deal in early 2014. Six months later Mayor Kasim Reed made a controversial announcement: Film mogul Tyler Perry would purchase roughly 330 acres for his new studio complex for $30 million — a steal for the massive site.

MILRA's board made Hooker its new executive director last September. He's now responsible for finalizing the Perry deal. Once they shake hands, he must then orchestrate a complex agreement with the U.S. Army to purchase the entire decommissioned military base for $26 million. Hooker calls Perry an "integral" part of Fort McPherson's overall plans, explaining that the deal with the filmmaker is basically financing the sale of the full site. That allows MILRA, Hooker says, to fulfill master plan guidelines to create jobs, provide economic benefit to the area, and build mixed-income developments, among other goals.

"Tyler Perry wanted to buy the entire base," Hooker says. "Our mission requires us to not do that because we have to accomplish these guidelines."

Hooker and MILRA have faced significant backlash from residents who are angry over the lack of transparency and community input in the Perry deal. Some community members worry that giving so much land to Perry's private studio complex squanders a rare chance to benefit the public in a location accessible to MARTA. Fears about potential gentrification also remain at the forefront of residents' minds.

Hooker expects MILRA to move dirt on its more than 140 remaining acres, should the deal pass, sometime in 2015. He'll have a large say in what gets built on that land. He says the property off Lee Street could eventually include a commercial mixed-used development with retail, dining, and a hotel that serves both Tyler Perry Studios and the surrounding communities. Along Campbellton Road he sees smaller community-scale developments that mesh with adjacent neighborhoods.

Despite the concerns, Hooker remains confident both deals will dramatically improve southwest Atlanta. Fort McPherson's redevelopment will bring surrounding communities unprecedented economic interest, he says. That is, if MILRA succeeds under his watch.

"I'm working on something that's big given the level of criticism," Hooker says. "If there were no critics, I would conclude that we're not doing anything important."

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