A breakdown of Smyrna’s controversial decision to sell public land to a private brewery

4 men and women outside Smyrna City Hall beside a large sign that says "Stop the Sale"Opponents of the brewery sale deal (photo by Arielle Robinson)

By Arielle Robinson

After months of impassioned debate on both sides of the issue, Smyrna’s City Council voted to sell the green space near the city community center so that a brewery can go there.

The vote was passed 5-2 Tuesday evening, with Councilmembers Susan Wilkinson and Charles Welch opposing the redevelopment that will take place in the downtown area.

The brewery

StillFire Brewing, a brewery that seeks to expand outside of its single location in Suwanee, will spend around $7 million to build a two-story brewery on the open space.

The city’s Downtown Development Authority will sell the land to Market Village Realty LLC for $600,000.

The $600,000 in proceeds from the land sale would conceptually go toward a public park that has a playground, stage and pet-friendly area on the southern end.

StillFire markets the brewery as a family-friendly place.

City officials and StillFire General Manager Aaron Bisges stated that a few key changes have been made to the original design of the brewery after listening to comments made from residents.

One change is that the brewery will have two stories instead of the originally proposed three stories.

The first story will be a brewery similar to the concept in Suwanee, while the second story will be a rooftop indoor/outdoor area, Bisges said.

Bisges also said there will be some kind of permanent food source at the location for people to eat at. It would likely be a window people can walk up to rather than a sit-in restaurant.

City Attorney Scott Cochran said that the city considered leasing the land to the brewery rather than selling it, but the company did not want to do that because of the large financial commitment they are putting into building the brewery.

“So we were trying to think, well, what can we accomplish [to] get the equivalent we would get with a lease but have a sale? What can we do to have the equivalent as far as control?” Cochran said.

That is when the city decided it would implement provisions that would allow the city to repurchase the property.

“One [provision] is if [StillFire doesn’t] do anything within a certain amount of time, then we get to buy it back for the amount that we sold it to them for because we sold it for it to be built for this brewery that they promised to build,” Cochran said.

The city attorney also said that in the case the brewery tries to flip the land and sell it to another entity, Smyrna has the right of first refusal if they do not approve of what occurs on the land.

Cochran said that 24 stipulations have been put into the contract.

He also said he believes the brewery would be the most expensive building downtown.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen an agreement quite like this … but I think we all together think that it works,” Cochran said.

Confusion over StillFire vs. Market Village Realty

StillFire has explicitly been named as the company that Smyrna has dealt with for months now, so there was confusion when the meeting agenda stated that Market Village Realty “or another entity controlled by the principals of that entity” would be the purchaser.

Cochran explained that the same people from StillFire formed an entity — Market Village Realty — to hold the property. He said companies forming entities is a common practice in the business world.

Bisges and his uncle who is one of the co-founders of StillFire, John Bisges, formed the entity.

Cochran said he wrote the portion about “another entity” in case the Bisges’ decided to form a different entity.

Why are city officials pushing for the brewery?

Economic Development Director Andrea Worthy pointed to the revitalization of the downtown area as the main reason for supporting a StillFire location.

She said a brewery would put the city on the map, attracting people and businesses from all over the metro area to Smyrna.

“It’s different than a restaurant, it’s different than a coffee shop,” Worthy said. “It’s really a community gathering place that invites a lot of other visitors to downtown. It serves as a community center where folks can meet up, [it] increases foot traffic for other businesses downtown.”

Worthy’s presentation said that local breweries can help support local artists and events as well as being a venue for open mics.

Other Cobb cities that have added breweries have seen on average about 1,000 to 2,000 new visitors per week to their downtown areas, Worthy said.

With regard to why the location, Worthy’s presentation stated that small scale craft breweries have more success in downtown areas, as visitors often flock there. Large scale breweries prefer to operate in industrial areas.

“These craft brewers are looking for an actual downtown location because they’re not an industrial type of use,” Worthy said. “Industrial uses, such as a SweetWater or whatnot, are usually located in more of an industrial area where they’re not dependent on selling the product to the folks there that are actually drinking it. They’re the folks that are distributing it for distribution throughout the United States. Being located downtown is really important for [StillFire’s] success.”

Worthy pointed to Reformation Brewery in Woodstock, which initially opened in an industrial area. The business was not successful in that location and moved downtown next to a city park, where they have been met with success.

Craft beer is a booming business in Cobb County and in cities across the United States, Worthy said.

Her presentation states that Georgia has added over 100 craft breweries since 2011 and the state ranks 48th in breweries per capita. The industry had a $2 billion economic impact in the state per a 2019 study.

In 2020, the county had 12 craft beverage-making locations (which include breweries, distilleries and wineries) that produced and sold drinks on site. Last year, this number grew to 17 and an additional three locations are set to open this year.

The Cobb cities of Acworth, Kennesaw, Marietta and Powder Springs will all have craft breweries in their downtown areas by this year, according to Worthy’s presentation.

Worthy connected the addition of the brewery to the city’s Building on the Legacy of Downtown plan, commonly known as the BOLD plan.

“The BOLD plan recommended a couple of things, reactivating the public event space in downtown, which [city council has] already approved … moving forward with the new green space in downtown,” Worthy said. “It actually also recommended adding public parking facilities and pedestrian improvements, which are also underway. It also recommended adding commercial space and visitors to downtown. And I believe that this particular plan does exactly that.”

Last July, Smyrna Mayor Derek Norton told citizens that city council already approved the installation of a turn lane and traffic light at the corner of Powder Springs Street and Atlanta Road and the construction of a three-story 250-space parking deck next to the police station in the area.

Debate over the park

Council members and city officials went back and forth over the concept of the park at the meeting Tuesday.

Wilkinson said that she has not seen a specific plan or cost estimate for the adjoining park.

Norton said StillFire is still working on the cost estimate and the issue will be discussed more in the coming weeks.

Furthermore, Wilkinson asked what would happen if the cost of the park were to exceed the proceeds from the sale of the land.

“That’ll have to be a council decision and debate,” Norton said. “We’ll have that debate in the next few weeks.”

“But yet we’re committing to it,” Wilkinson said.

“We’re not committing to anything other than a concept,” Cochran replied.

This is when Welch asked if the contract could be modified to include a provision for the cost of the park not to exceed the purchasing price of the property, to which Norton said he thinks the city would be doing a disservice to the citizens if that were the case.

“It’s this council’s prerogative to talk about what that would look like and what amenities you want to put in there and if $600,000 covers it, that’s great,” Norton said. “If it doesn’t, then I think we probably need to figure [it] out.”

“But we’re going to vote here tonight to approve this contract with the inclusion of a park that we don’t know the cost of and we’re not going to put any stipulations for a maximum cost to the park, is that correct?” Welch asked.

“Yes,” Cochran said. “ … Just like conceptually they’re going to build a brewery and they don’t know the exact cost of the brewery either. I have no idea what the park will cost, we’ll have to discuss that at the appropriate time and decide what to do.”

Councilman Austin Wagner asked what the ramifications would be if the cost of the park is too high. He wanted to know if the city would either do away with certain designs of the park to cut costs or get rid of it completely.

Cochran said the park has always been part of the deal with the brewery.

Norton said he could not imagine any scenario where the city would not go forward with the park.

Welch said he was concerned because Tuesday’s meeting was the first time council had discussions on what would occur if the price exceeds $600,000.

Again, Norton said they will figure out specifics in the near future.

What councilmembers had to say before voting on the sale

As stated above, Wilkinson and Welch were the two council members to vote against the land sale. They both stated that while they are not opposed to a brewery, they do not like the location.

Welch said he would like to see an aquatic center on the land. He said he does not see the brewery bringing a large boost to downtown.

“This is just my own personal opinion, but I don’t believe that a brewery is a place for family gatherings,” Welch said to loud applause. “In my opinion, the city negotiated poorly with the proposed buyers, essentially giving them everything they wanted.”

“I suggested that the brewery pay for the park so that the city would gain some revenue from the sale anyway … We’ve agreed initially to put $600,000 into a park and then we’ve discussed here tonight that the price may exceed $600,000 — so the brewery may actually cost us money,” Welch said.

Wilkinson said the process surrounding the brewery has not been transparent and flawed from the initial stages.

“We are being asked to approve this sales agreement and resolution, which does not mention StillFire, but Market Village Realty LLC or another entity,” Wilkinson said. “I think there’s some information there that I just feel like I’ve not been privy to.”

Wilkinson also expressed concerns over a lack of plans and a cost estimate for the park.

She said she does not support the sale of public land to an “unknown entity” and would not support a plan she believes “is breaching the public’s trust in us and diminishes the power of the citizens to determine the future of our city.”

On the other side of the issue, Councilman Tim Gould said two things motivated him to support the brewery — economic development and the growth of the downtown area.

He said there is not enough foot traffic downtown and StillFire could help change that.

“The green space, that’s been empty for 30 years,” Gould said. “It wasn’t built on for a reason, it was left that way in anticipation of some development.”

“There’s been calls for expanding the community center,” he also said. “Two things there — one, if that ever was to come to fruition that’s years down the road — and secondly, it probably would not happen in the downtown area. The vast majority of residents don’t live here in the downtown, they live in Ward 6, Ward 7, somewhere else, so another public use is probably not the ideal use for the green space.”

Wagner agreed with Gould and said that he has heard a lot over the years from residents about revitalizing downtown.

Councilman Dr. Lewis Wheaton said he had many concerns with the initial proposal of the brewery. He had questions about the size and lack of food options but said he was pleased to see the recent changes in design.

He also added another perspective.

“I don’t know if these have been specific to me or to other people as well, but I’ve heard … about racial concerns at breweries in general,” Wheaton, who is Black, said. “Those are concerns that I take very personally and I take very seriously.”

Wheaton said he had spoken with a close colleague who was able to visit StillFire’s Suwanee location and gave very positive reviews.

“Are there national problems? Perhaps so, but that again is not on the table for us to consider,” Wheaton said. “We can consider and we should rally around the powerful tool of the NDO, the non-discrimination ordinance that we nearly unanimously approved to ensure that if there are concerns with race, with gender, or sex, or any other determining factors or characteristics that we identify with, that we hold them to task,” Wheaton said.

Councilman Glenn Pickens said he is excited about the development and asked people to imagine the economic boom and overall changes it would bring downtown.

Councilman Travis Lindley said the brewery will be something that will “drive people to stay in Smyrna.” He said the brewery has the same goal as city council — to create a vibrant downtown.

“History is on our side on this,” Lindley said. “The forefathers that had the guts to remake downtown said ‘no, we’re going to put something there.’”

What some citizens are saying about the decision

There has been much polarized debate among Smyrna residents about the sale of the green space and the arrival of a brewery.

In past town halls, residents who opposed the brewery listed potential increases in DUIs, transparency and traffic issues and the $600,000 sale of the land, which they said was a low cost, among reasons to take a stance against the brewery.

In the audience at Tuesday’s meeting, people on both sides of the issues held signs up saying either “yes” or “no” to the brewery.

One Smryna resident who held up a “yes” sign was Breland Edwards, who said that as a resident, she often finds herself visiting nearby cities for recreational activities.

“I would prefer to spend my time in the city I live in and give them business,” Edwards said. “ … I think that bringing the brewery to Smyrna, I agree that I think it’s going to be a big community space and it’s going to pull in other businesses to come to our downtown area.”

Another resident who was satisfied with the decision made was Russ Patterson.

He said he and his wife moved to the city about a year ago, live near downtown and are strongly in favor of development within the downtown area.

Patterson said that he thinks growing the downtown area will eventually help the city to develop outside of just downtown because of the economic opportunities.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to just grow and expand our horizons and continue to grow Smyrna in a way that Smyrna probably never thought they were going to be able to do,” Patterson said. “This is a good opportunity — not only for the people that are here close to downtown — but people outside Smryna and even further out.”

Disappointed by city council’s decision were members and supporters of the vocal and very visible opposition force to the brewery, Smart Smyrna.

The group formed last year in light of the news of what was then the potential sale of the green space. They describe themselves as a grassroots organization “fighting to preserve the city we love.”

They said they have over 1,400 signatures on their petition opposing the sale of the land.

Before the city council meeting, Smart Smyrna members said they were hoping to get city council to delay the vote.

A few members who disapproved of city council’s decision walked out of the meeting right after the vote.

After the meeting, a Smart Smryna spokesperson sent the Courier the following statement:

“Smart Smyrna is a grassroots community action group that was created in July 2021 out of concern for the Mayor’s proposed redevelopment plans for the downtown area near the community center. Unfortunately, the City Council chose to vote for something that enriches private business owners instead of voting in the interest of community enrichment for generations. The Mayor successfully lobbied the Council in the purchase of our public green space with a 5 – 2 vote approving the sale in the absence of measures that would have resulted in responsible governance. They proceeded:

· Without giving Smyrna citizens adequate time to absorb last minute changes and agreements to the design and sale;

· Without giving Council members proper notice of a third party sale of our public green space.

· Without giving Council the opportunity to digest the environmental impact study to understand how the findings might impact the downtown and/or the integrity of the sale in light of the nearby underground spring below the Duck Pond;

· Without addressing the real ‘hard questions’ about brewery operations and impacts to the surrounding community; and, finally

· Without seeking other opportunities to ensure competitive bidding will reap the best outcome.

These basic actions are typically what most cities would entertain in the best interest of their economic development and taxpayer bottom line. It is not clear why the City of Smyrna would not venture to allow more time before finalizing the deal. The tenor of the discussion was hard to watch while senior council members were berated for the ‘hard questions’ and fellow Council members sat complicit to the actions of leadership, an embarrassment indeed.

Moving forward, we will continue to serve as a community watch group and will work hard to bring the best information forward so that more citizens are involved in the shaping of our city. We will continue to encourage best practices relating to planning, public engagement and project development. In the absence of a local news outlet, we will do our best to encourage our community to be aware, to watch, and participate in matters of such importance affecting the many generations to come. Smart Smyrna will continue to advocate for the care of our city’s assets. If you wish to support our efforts for the City of Smyrna see www.smartsmyrna.com for more information. Our work continues.”

What happens now?

After the meeting, Norton said that city council will begin the process of talking about the park next.

He said the bid process is already occurring for the green space that is replacing the roundabout and the parking deck.

“As soon as the park is approved, whatever concept we come up with, shovels will go in the ground for both that and StillFire with the idea that all of it will be done by May of next year,” the mayor said.

“We didn’t want to separate out construction times because that’s going to be a mess down there,” Norton said. “We wanted to condense it as much as we could where everything was happening at once, so it wasn’t spread out and there was always some construction downtown.”

About the intense debate that has occurred among city-dwellers and their elected officials these past months, Gould said that he thinks all of city council appreciates the high volume of citizen input on the brewery.

“In the end, I think it helps deliver a better product and a better decision from the council,” Gould said.

Norton, who has backed the development for a while, said the following:

“I always say there’s two types of people — those that live in the city of Smyrna and those who wish they did, and what we did here tonight is going to make sure that our downtown is vibrant for a long time and it’s going to attract more people here in the long term.”

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.