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City banks on Lakewood as ripe for redevelopment 

Atlanta's largest outdoor amphitheater will remain, but a monthly antique market's future is up in the air under a private redevelopment plan for the city-owned Lakewood Fairgrounds.

Actually, "plan" may be something of a misnomer, since city officials have not yet drawn up blueprints or fielded offers from eager developers.

But Atlanta City Council is excited enough about the possibilities -- new restaurants, shops, housing and parkland -- to have approved spending $4 million to buy out the remaining 29 years of the fairgrounds' long-standing lease and regain control of the historic property.

Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who initiated the buyout, says she would like to see a mixture of residential, commercial and retail development, but concedes, "I don't have any specific plans."

She is certain, however, that Lakewood has been underutilized in recent years, especially compared to its heyday in the '40s and '50s, when it was the site of a Coney Island-style amusement park, stock-car and horse racing, and a popular agriculture fair.

Given the building boom along nearby Pryor Road that has replaced the old Carver Homes public housing with new condos and apartments, Sheperd believes that Lakewood will soon become highly coveted real estate. At 117 acres, the former fairgrounds is said to be the largest chunk of available land in the city now that Atlantic Station has been developed.

"That whole neighborhood is growing by leaps and bounds," Sheperd says. "I feel confident that development is going to come there."

The city has given lease-holder Ed Spivia two years to find another venue for his popular Lakewood Antiques Market, but Sheperd says she would like to see the market stay, providing it fits into whatever redevelopment plan is eventually selected.

The city will invite private developers to begin submitting proposals early next year, she says.

On Monday, former Councilman Derrick Boazman, who faces Sheperd in a Dec. 6 runoff for her District 12 Council seat, accused the councilwoman and Mayor Shirley Franklin of timing their announcement of the Lakewood to benefit Sheperd's re-election campaign. He also cited Sheperd's acceptance of a $250 campaign donation from Spivia's company as a conflict of interest.

Situated around a 15-acre lake on former Creek Indian land, Lakewood Fairgrounds was established in 1916 as home of the Southeastern Fair, with its four familiar Spanish colonial livestock exhibition halls, a circus big top and a huge carousel that remained until 1967. In the '40s, a dirt track around the lake served as Lakewood Speedway for stock cars -- Richard Petty won his first professional race there -- and as one of the major stops on the grand circuit of harness racing.

But the fair shut its doors for good in 1978, the speedway was bulldozed in 1989, and by 1984, when Spivia signed a $150,000-a-year lease on the property, several of the remaining buildings were in disrepair.

A former Georgia film commissioner-turned-movie producer, Spivia had envisioned turning the site into a $21 million film studio and movie theme park, along the lines of the Universal Studios Tour. When that deal turned sour, he decided to switch gears, pulling in an antiques market and subleasing some of the land for Lakewood Amphitheatre -- now owned by the House of Blues and since renamed for HiFi Buys Amphitheatre. In 2000, Spivia came within a whisker of selling his lease to entertainment mogul Dallas Austin as a production lot. But the deal fell through, too.

Spivia has mixed emotions about leaving Lakewood, but he agrees its history and expansive open space make it a choice location for large-scale development.

"It would surprise me greatly if they didn't keep those [exhibition] buildings as a great centerpiece for the property," he says.

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