A 52-acre tract on the northwest corner of Barrett and Cobb parkways is slated for a commercial project by Atlanta-based Fuqua Development, which will close at least part of the Castle Lake Mobile Home Park that houses an estimated 1,500 people.
The mobile home park includes 250 lots, with both rented and purchased prefabricated homes lining the narrow, cracked roads that make a grid in the wooded area.
Last week, residents of the complex addressed the Kennesaw City Council in both English and Spanish, trying to stop the $150 million commercial
Those cries of dissent were joined by statements from two community advocates.
One speaker was Pastor Tom Tanner of Riverstone Church, which has been located off Stilesboro Road, less than a mile from Castle Lake, since 2006.
On Sunday, Tanner preached out of the book of Mark, where Jesus challenges his followers to give away their possessions to the poor in order to serve the Lord and enter the kingdom of heaven.
On the walls of the Riverstone Church sanctuary are blocks with a few words, including outreach, development and community transformation.
Many members of the church have literally taken those words to the streets, hoping to shape one neighborhood at a time, not by just providing for the physical needs but in building relationships.
“We care deeply about the people of Castle Lake,” Tanner said.
Almost three years ago, Brad and Brooke Kireta started an outreach group for Castle Lake, offering English classes for adults while their children are tutored, providing materials and labor to build a new playground, donating free haircuts, playing host to cookouts and repairing the homes of single mothers and widows.
The promise of relocation help
On Feb. 17, The Kennesaw City Council voted 5-0 to annex much of the mobile home property into the city limits, with a condition requiring Fuqua to submit a relocation plan to move existing residents prior to the beginning of construction.
Attorney Garvis Sams, of the Marietta-based firm Sams, Larkin, Huff & Balli, LLP that represents Fuqua, said the project would break ground in six months and open in the spring of 2016.
After hearing the residents’ cries for help, Mayor Mark Mathews said the developer would work closely with the residents to help them relocate.
Jeff Fuqua, who formed Fuqua Development LP in March 2012, attended the public hearing and through Sams told the crowd the company would form a committee this spring to start relocation assistance on a family by family basis.
With four extension churches throughout Cobb and another starting in Smyrna, Tanner said he is not concerned about the Castle Lake residents moving away from Riverstone Church, because there is a great chance a similar congregation will be nearby.
But he wants to make sure their other needs are “intentionally cared for,” Tanner said.
The Kiretas said Castle Lake is a strong community where neighbors rely on each other for rides to work and child care, and dispersing the close-knit groups could have a devastating impact.
“These people do life together,” said Brad Kireta, including the four busloads of kids who attend nearby public schools from kindergarten through high school.
Brooke Kireta said many of the residents may not know English, but are intelligent, hardworking people who want to contribute to the greater community.
“It is a cultural view that they come to the country to take, take, take, but often they are the ones being taken advantage of,” Brooke Kireta said.
Losing homes, way of life
Another outspoken advocate said the fear of outsiders now seems founded as Castle Lake residents are losing their only sense of security: their community.
Shannan Smith Sikorski, who also gave an emotional speech to the City Council last week, is the owner of Big Shanty Barbershop off Main Street in downtown Kennesaw.
Born and raised in Kennesaw, Sikorski said she first began raising money for the Castle Lake residents more than two years ago after reading about a backpack program that provides lunches to hungry kids.
With the support of friends, families and businesses, Sikorski said her charity helps pay utility bills and provided 153 toys this Christmas season, mostly to people Sikorski said are too scared to ask for help or too shy to accept
“We had to force turkeys on them,” Sikorski said about a program she organized around Thanksgiving. “They don’t want to take too much.”
During the holiday season, Sikorski said her charity gave $3,000 worth of donations, but that money could have been used for an even greater purpose if the neighborhood had been told about the impending development.
“Long-term housing might have been a better gift,” Sikorski said.
The young children, who Sikorski emphasizes are American citizens, and work diligently in to break the cycle of poverty, but she has been told by parents their grades are already slipping do to the stress of moving.
“It is up to us to keep the dream alive,” Sikorski said.
Although Sikorski said she has no plans to picket the new businesses or lie down in front of bulldozers, she will be “barking in everyone’s ear” until the last person is safely relocated.
The city’s economic development
In December, Fuqua filed papers with Kennesaw seeking to rezone the property from a county residential mobile home park to a city planned village community.
The massive mixed-use project would include 450,000 square feet of retail space and 30 townhomes on the western side of the property. The townhomes would be purchased, not rented.
Whole Foods Market has agreed to anchor the large shopping complex. There is also space designated for a sporting goods store, and room to add a drug store, casual dining restaurants, specialty retail shops, office space and even a gas station, Sams said.
Darryl Simmons, Kennesaw’s planning and zoning administrator, said the Atlanta Regional Commission received a copy of the site plans and “determined that this mixed use development is not a Development of Regional Impact.”
Developments of Regional Impact are large-scale developments that are likely to have regional effects beyond the local government jurisdiction in which they are located.
As for the rezoning and annexation decision by the City Council, any party desiring to appeal would have to file with the Superior Court of Cobb County by the middle of March, Simmons said.
Riverstone Church is not against the commercial development, “just the way it all went down,” Tanner said.
Tanner, who lives in Kennesaw, said the new stores and restaurants would be good for the city, with more jobs and an economic boost.
Organizers of the outreach from Riverstone Church said the Castle Lake management staff has opened land and buildings to allow the group to help residents.
But Sikorski said the management company has hidden details and purposely miscommunicated, further breaking down the trust the residents have for other officials.
“The most important thing right now is that they understand everything that has been done,” Sikorski said.
At the Feb. 17 meeting, Mathews said the council was not aware the management of Castle Lake had not communicated the plan to sell the land until recently.
Mathews gave his word that the Castle Lake families would be treated fairly and be placed in a better living situation than the one in which they are currently living.
Even with the high possibility of leaving schools that have created programs for the Castle Lake children or quitting jobs that will no longer be within walking distance, Sikorski said in a “perfect world,” being forced to find new homes could be the best thing for the residents.
“But we don’t live in a perfect world,” Sikorski said.