$800M Project In Doubt After Officials Missed Red Flags About Developer's Finances
Economic development officials in Clayton County, near Atlanta, handed a novice developer more than $550K in grants to help kick-start a futuristic, $800M mixed-use project after the developer, Jacques Roman, claimed to have $100M secured to finance the project.
But a review of records surrounding the deal show Roman never had $100M to build his vision, but the county failed to vet his claims and leased him 26 acres at $10 a year for 50 years for the project, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
Roman's firm, Roman United, proposed in 2020 a massive project in Clayton County called The Roman on land county officials were seeking to redevelop. His pitch included two 27-story condominium towers, a 25-story, 420K SF office tower, a 7,500-seat amphitheater and a 17K SF small-business incubator. Aside from the $559K for architectural design and engineering already given to Roman, Clayton County has agreed to use $4M in taxpayer funds to finance the incubator, which has yet to break ground.
Roman submitted a three-page “conditional commitment” letter to Invest Clayton Executive Director Larry Vincent in 2021, in which he claimed his project had overseas investor backing of $100M in an Australian bank account and that Roman’s financial partners were willing to invest up to $350M, the AJC reported.
Those claims were never vetted, Vincent told the AJC.
A signator of that letter, Vaughn Richmond, pleaded guilty in 2011 to four counts of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud in federal court in New York, serving a year in prison for the offense, the AJC reported. Richmond had already pleaded guilty in 2016 for the same charge and was sentenced to time served.
Richmond told the AJC that he was a victim of the 2008 mortgage crisis and his second conviction came as a result of missing obligations due to the first legal wrangling. While Richmond maintained to the AJC that the Australian investor money was real, he said he was in the dark about Roman United’s ceremonial groundbreaking in August 2022 and the project’s progression since then.
“I haven’t been in touch with them (Roman) for some time,” Richmond told the AJC. “In fact, I wasn’t sure if they were still going forward. I could easily rescind my letter, because I don’t know where they are on the project.”
Since Roman unveiled plans for the project, red flags about his background and plans have been emerging. Last year, the AJC found that Roman’s company address was listed as a Dunwoody apartment complex from which he had previously been evicted and that he used photos of projects on his website that he had no involvement with, including images of a mall in Germany, Harvard University and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Despite claiming at the groundbreaking that Roman United would complete a first phase of the project by the fall of 2023, including the incubator, a condo tower and the amphitheater, the developer has yet to apply to rezone the property or filed for construction permits as of last week, per the AJC.
Earlier this month, Clayton County Commissioners issued a letter to Roman that the county would no longer participate in the incubator project since the developer missed benchmarks on progress for the development, Clayton News Daily reported.
Despite the concerns, Vincent told the AJC that he still supports the project.
“This is pretty much a virgin start-up,” Vincent told the AJC. “I feel once we start and build the money-making ends of this, like the arena, the hotel and the condos, the revenue will flow and the investors will come.”
The county is already exploring ways of clawing back the $559K it paid Roman for the project, the AJC reported, and Clayton officials could void the lease if certain terms of the deal aren't met.