Immediately following Friday’s announcement of a proposed $800 million mixed-use highrise development and amphitheater in Lake City, questions about the project began lighting up social media and The Clayton Crescent’s inbox.
An article in Urbanize Atlanta about The Roman at Clayton County Entertainment Complex drew a number of critical comments from readers who pointed out several websites that appeared to be linked to the developer and built by Yemen Business, a Yemeni web design company that features Akon City’s and BAD Consult’s sites on its website portfolio.
The sites (listed below) appeared to use a similar template. All used the same stock images of “projects” that were misidentified and that used the same boilerplate text, sometimes switching the text among the stock photos of “projects” allegedly completed by those companies.
Roman United, the developer, has since updated its website with images of the proposed Roman project, which officials said would stretch for an entire block owned by the Development Authority of Clayton County (Invest Clayton) across from the National and Georgia Archives on Jonesboro Road. Last Monday, a company spokesperson said that images of the project The Clayton Crescent had pulled from Roman United’s website were two years out of date.
WATCH: Video reveal of Roman CECC
Jacque Roman told Urbanize Atlanta that Clayton County’s “philosophy and mission aligned with our company culture.”
On Friday, DACC Board Chair Regina Deloach said the project “has been about two years in the making with just vision, hard work, and talking with Mayor Dotson, Mayor Lampl, all of us coming together to set forth this vision with our executive director of the Development Authority. Mr. Vincent has been instrumental. I’ve worked with—just here in the community.”
Deloach added, “It’s going to go up 25 stories. It’s going to be a hotel, condos, penthouses….So we are looking to bring in all of that airport traffic and to just bring in greatness to Clayton County….So this is going to be the first [highrise] to happen here on the Southside. Historic day.”
Because Clayton County has never gone 25 stories high, Deloach said, the zoning will need to change. The location is not under a flight path from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, she added.
Larry Vincent, DACC’s executive director, told The Clayton Crescent, “It took some work, but we got it.” He said the plan is to link a path from Southlake Mall to Roman CCEC, that MARTA’s BRT line would stop in front of the development, and that “we’re going to tie it to the airport via shuttle service. Dedicated private shuttle service. Because, let’s face it, you’ve got the right people flying in, they’re going to want that 24-hour access. That’s where you get the limos, the dedicated shuttle service, so they can be treated the right way.”
Asked what he thought the biggest obstacle had been to getting the deal done, developer Jacques Roman told The Clayton Crescent, “I think we had a lot of parties involved, so we had to make sure everybody was on the same page. This property sits on two cities, right? So you’ve got the city, the county, the Development Authority, including Roman United. I don’t think there was any obstacles. I think everybody was on the same page; it was just a time process of making sure. And like Larry stated, you know, making sure the legal—everything legally was lined up to make this project happen. And that stuff takes time.”
Roman said he hopes to finish Phase One “by the beginning of fall next year (2023).” That would include the incubator, one condo tower, and the 7,500-seat amphitheater.
“This is the day”
Friday’s symbolic groundbreaking was part tent revival, part press conference.
“I just want to say we appreciate the vision of the community,” Deloach told the crowd, “the community coming to pour into us and say ‘This is what we have been waiting for,’ and guess what? The wait is over. And today is that historic day in our county. And we truly appreciate our community for pouring into all of us. We appreciate it. That’s how this vision came about….Give yourselves a round of applause, Clayton County, because we have succeeded. This is the day.”
She said the development “25 years from today will remain special, and remain the envy—the envy—of other counties in the state of Georgia.”
Lake City Mayor Ron Dodson said, “We’re the smallest city in the county, land-wise and population. And if you ask people outside of Clayton County. ‘Where is Lake City?’, they say, ‘Oh it’s in Florida.’ That’s the answer you get most of the time. But folks, right now, you can go home and say, ‘I was standing in Lake City.'”
“About two and a half years ago, we met in this very parking lot with the people from Roman United, kind of talked over the hoods of each other and so forth, and they kind of laid a plan out,” Dodson said. “And I’ll be honest, I said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ That was two and a half years ago. Well, then we started having a few meetings with the folks from Roman United, and then of course COVID hit, so we started having Zoom meetings, which I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t get a lot out of Zoom meetings. But anyway, we continued to do that, along with the executive director of Clayton County Development Authority, Larry Vincent, and time just kind of eased along. The just a few months ago, we started having in-house and in-office meetings with the folks from Roman United, with Chairman Turner…and others. So things began to roll a little more. And we would meet with the representatives from Roman United down at our city hall, and we would discuss some of the problems that we might see would arise from this, and they had solutions for everything. We were worried about traffic. We were worried about security. We were worried about, you know, many little different little things. They came back and had an answer for us, for all of them. So I began to feel a little better, and then time kind of went along, and all of a sudden, they’d say, ‘Hey, we’re ready to show you something.’ And they did.”
Turner said he would take the good weather “as a sign of the greatness of what’s about to happen at this location. You know, as the mayor said, this project has been several years in the making, But even before Roman United stepped in, several other companies came in and made proposals and said that they had these grandiose plans. None of them went through. And I truly believe none of those went through because we needed this project to take fruition, to come to this county, to make a difference here in Clayton County. The magnitude of the project is unbelievable.”
Turner said the development would have an economic impact “on the southern region. Everybody’s always talking about what’s north of I-20. They’re gonna start talking about what’s south of I-20, once this development comes to fruition.”
He added that “everybody up here, everybody out there, the Board of Commissioners did their part. And teamwork makes the dream work. And we gotta continue to do that. We gotta continue to make sure that Roman United and this group has what they need to continue to move this project along. We all want it to be built like yesterday. But it’s gonna take a little time, so have a little patience. But at the end of the day, it’s gonna truly be something that Clayton County and the southern region will be absolutely proud of….Jacque and Roman United and partners, thank you for bringing this to Clayton County. Because you truly made the right decision.”
“As I ran for office, y’all know this was something that I ran on,” District 1 Commissioner Alieka Anderson told the assembled media and community leaders at Friday’s groundbreaking. “Live, work, eat, learn, and what? Play….As I came into office, I also met with Mr. Vincent and Ms. Deloach, and Roman United, to tell them ‘I need you all to make this happen.’ Because you all know that I want to make sure that we push to move Clayton County and District 1 forward in everything that we do.”
DACC Executive Director Larry Vincent told the crowd, “This is so not like me. I like being in the background and making it happen and watching it happen, but I just want to welcome you to today’s event, which is a historical moment for our community. It represents a lot of years of hard work, but most importantly, it represents the dismissal of a lot of years of missed opportunities. Let that soak in.
“Let another fact soak in: we are building the first high rises in metro Atlanta south of Midtown. Think about that. You’ve probably got to go all the way to Miami Beach to find something taller than what we’re going to build here.” (The Bank of America Tower in Jacksonville, FL is 617 feet tall and 142 stories high, but the proposed development would give Macon and Savannah a run for their money.) He added, “We’ve never built a high rise in Clayton County, so we’ve got to go through a very special zoning process in both cities (Lake City and Morrow) and the county….we know that’s kind of scary to some people, but I think we’re gonna do the right thing here that’s going to change the trajectory of our county by adding jobs, increasing family income, additional revenue streams for our municipal partnerships around town, and just building wealth for the future of our citizens. Think about this project adding Class A living and amenities for our great university, the National Archives, our city, we’ve got Gillem Logistics down the street, one of the greatest BRAC redesigns that ever have taken place in the country. Hartsfield-Jackson, our business communities. All will have a place they can call home and really expand their businesses and just bring more great things to Clayton County, Lake City, and Morrow.”
Vincent said the development, which will tower over Reynolds Nature Center, will “respect our environment, with energy efficiency designs and water conservation measures to where we just won’t pollute our environment or add to our environment with a project of this magnitude.”
Friday night, a dinner and reveal of the site’s architectural design was held at the Lake City Community Center, which has become home to most Development Authority of Clayton County meetings:
What is Roman United?
Roman United Construction LLC became a Georgia corporation on September 4, 2019, according to the Secretary of State’s online business filings. Jacque Roman, who was a college football star at Appalachian State, was the organizer and Kevin Smith, a CPA in Dacula, was the registered agent.
On July 22 of this year, the company amended its annual filing, moving the principal office address from a gated apartment complex in Dunwoody to a virtual office in Buckhead and listing Roman as a member of the corporation:
While there’s nothing inherently unprofessional about moving from one’s home to a virtual business address, or using a Wix.com template to promote one’s business, using stock photos of various sites and identifying them as something else that doesn’t exist has raised eyebrows.
The web developer for these sites, all of which use or have used what appears to be the same template to promote their development projects, is Yemen Business. However, as of Monday morning, all references to the company and its logo no longer showed up in association with these websites:
- https://www.romanunited.com/projects (which has, since Friday night, been updated to show only the Roman development planned for Lake City)
- https://www.bluwatdev.com/projects (crawled twice by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, on November 27, 2021 and December 19, 2021. The company’s contact is listed as firstname.lastname@example.org, and a check of who.is lists an email@example.com of 789 Welcome Sargeant Road in Newnan is listed as the owner of the bluewaterdev.com domain name.)
- https://www.cavaliercommercial.com/ (crawled 23 times between March 23, 2004 and July 1, 2022. The last page the Wayback Machine captured shows a 2019 copyright notice but no contact information other than a web form.) The company’s website used the same boilerplate text for its “Construction Management” and its “Development” sections, on the same page: “Our clients are our number one priority, and we’ll go the extra mile to make sure they get the best from their investment. Have a specific project that requires our wealth of experience? Our services are designed to tackle even the most complex projects. To book a consultation, contact us today.”
- https://www.haydenlakecapital.com/ (crawled twice by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, on December 6, 2021 and February 2, 2022, this company listed its address as the Hayden Lake Country Club in Hayden Lake, ID. Its “Our Story” section read, “Since its inception in 2000, Hayden Lake Capital has earned its reputation as a leading Commercial Real Estate Development Company in and around CA. [Ed.: That could be Canada or California.] We pride ourselves on developing smart, high-tech buildings, always with a sustainable footprint. Working with a strong team of industry professionals, we have a proven track record in unlocking value in sites and translating client visions into reality. Whether you’re looking to invest in new build and refurbishment schemes, collaborate on bespoke projects, or are an existing landowner with a joint venture idea, Hayden Lake Capital has the collective skills and experience to translate your ideas. For a free consultation, contact the team today.” So we tried e-mailing the contact listed on Hayden Lake Capital’s webpage and got this autoresponse:
The Clayton Crescent did reverse image searches of the three photos used repeatedly across those websites as portfolio examples of each company’s developments:
Gello College Innovation Center
This “project” photo is a stock image of Harvard University’s Widener Library in Cambridge, MA. You can see it in the background of a link on the homepage:
Olympiad Shopping Center
This “project” photo does not return a definitive real-world location via TinEye search.
Delaruse Botanical Garden
This “project” photo (which showed a project completion date of January 25, 2025 as of Monday morning), according to TinEye, was first crawled on the web on October 6, 2016 on pixabay.com, a stock image website. No “Delaruse Botanical Garden” turns up in searches of real-world botanical gardens on Google or on the Botanic Gardens Conservation International Website:
However, similar images do turn up as the Singapore Botanic Gardens Bandstand at 1 Cluny Road, Singapore, which was built in 1930:
It’s not uncommon for web hosting sites to create templates with stock photos or even with imaginary people or locations using boilerplate text, often done overseas for pennies on the dollar.
But why would multiple mult-million-dollar developments with high-profile clients and concern for publicity cheap out on web design?
Roman United updated its site the same day of the groundbreaking—and the same day that comments on the Urbanize Atlanta article sparked attention:
What is Yamasaki?
According to the company’s website, “YAMASAKI is back to its roots with a new headquarters in Detroit located in the Fisher Building in Detroit’s New Center area. Known for our world-class design services for domestic and international clientele, we provide creative, high-value, sustainable design services in different cultural contexts. In addition to Southeastern Michigan and United States based experience, we have delivered the full range of services in Abu Dhabi, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, China, Dubai, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, Korea, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Turkey.”
The company’s late founder, Minoru Yamasaki, designed the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center.
What is BAD Consult?
The project designer is Hussein Bakri of Bakri & Associates Development Consultants of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
BAD Associates also designed Akon City, a similarly futuristic, curvilinear development in Senegal, that got tax breaks from President Macky Sall’s administration, according to Africa Surveyors Online News in a June 4, 2020 article: “a US based Consulting and Engineering firm has won the building contract and execution of the Akon City. The US $6 Billion futuristic-cryptocurrency themed City is founded by Senegalese-American superstar and philanthropist Akon. With the awarding of the contract, KE International has secured US $4 Billion from investors for the first and second Phases of execution of Akon City, and will have Dubai based Bakri & Associates Development Consultants lead the architectural designs under KE International guidance.”
An interview in Penn Today with Christopher Marcinkoski of the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design called Akon City and projects like it “speculative urbanization.” According to Marcinkoski, such developments involve “a kind of stagecraft. These kinds of urbanization initiatives help politicians and business leaders say they’re doing something positive for their country—they are a kind of propaganda. Secondly, as I said earlier, it’s also a bit of a real estate ploy. In the case of Akon City, the land was given away to the project’s promoters by the president. There was no cost of acquisition. Two thousand acres were simply handed over. When a glossy plan or vision is then put forth, the value of that piece of land, and lands adjacent to it, are suddenly escalated. Value is created without anything actually being built. Money will be made, and political capital gained from the project, but at the end of the day, it is purely a speculation with little intention of actually being built.”
Officials at Friday’s groundbreaking told members of the media and the community that Roman would increase local property values. Not everyone was thrilled by the news:
In 2020, a story in The African Mirror echoed similar concerns about financing and project completion. In 20o9, the Senegalese Coastal and Tourist Zones Development and Promotion Company (SAPCO), took over small landowners’ property but had not paid them for it. In 2014, “[a]ccording to documents seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the government declared in 2014 that 1.8 billion CFA Francs ($3.35 million) was owed to 385 people for a total of 504 hectares in Mbodiene and 110 hectares in nearby Pointe Sarene. A local government employee, not authorised to speak on the topic, said a little less than half the money has been paid.”
At the time, The African Mirror’s Nelile Peyton quoted Bakri as saying that Phase One would use 55 hectares of landhe first phase of Akon City will be built on 55 hectares that SAPCO controlled, “but the long-term plan is to use all 504 hectares in Mbodiene….KE International, whose website says the city will be located on 2,000 acres (800 hectares), declined to comment on the question of compensation to former landowners. Concerned about the project, the Senegalese chapter of Transparency International wrote to the tourism minister in September requesting clarity on the shareholding arrangement, the property rights, the impact studies and more.”
In 2021, according to traveltomorrow.com, Akon City was still an empty grassland. However, Marta Pacheco reported, Akon made a deal with the Ugandan government last July to build a second Akon City there, which also would run on his namesake cryptocurrency. When asked if Ugandans could afford to live there, Akon replied, “I know if I put it there, they’re going to find a way to afford it because it’s going to motivate them. But ultimately when you create an opportunity, people grow with that opportunity, people learn with that opportunity, people are motivated with that opportunity.”
A photo from the Mwale Medical and Technology City in Butere, Kenya—another development by BAD Consult and KE International—shows signage for Akoin, the cryptocoin of the realm for Akon City.
KE International is a U.S. company that reportedly is involved in financing Akon City and is partnering with Julius Mwale to build a battery plant in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mwale, who also is also behind the Mwale Medical and Technology City in Kenya, a giant healthcare development, told Billionaires Africa, “We are investing in the DRC to build a 16-gigawatt (16 terawatt) battery manufacturing plant to help power our smart cities in Kenya and throughout Africa. The new collaborations will allow us to expand the Mwale Medical Tourism City model across Africa, where we have secured 18 locations for smart city expansion.” Billionaires Africa notes, “The plant will be built next to the Kenyan businessman’s cobalt and nickel mines in the DRC.” A similar story ran in Business Daily Africa.
Whether expanding that model would include expanding the use of Akon City’s dedicated cryptocurrency is unclear. However, according to Page Six, Akon’s former business partner, Devyne Stephens, filed court documents in Manhattan Supreme Court, including a former federal agent’s affidavit that Akoin had “many of the trademark characteristics (known as ‘red flags’) of fraudulent business ventures such as Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes.” That agent is “highly decorated former federal agent” Scot Thomasson, who now serves as a consultant for investment due diligence, as well as security, crisis communications, media management, and training.
Vibe Magazine’s Preezy Brown reported a similar story in March.
Akon’s spokesperson issued this response: “Mr. Stephens’ allegations about Akon City and Akon’s business ventures are not based on any evidence. They are nothing but innuendo and speculation, made by someone who had a claim against Akon dismissed,” the rep said, referring to a claim in the prior version of Stephens’ lawsuit that a judge tossed. Akon is proud of the efforts he is undertaking to create opportunities for his homeland in Senegal.”
Public reaction mixed
At a celebration and unveiling of the architectural renderings held at Lake City Friday night, plenty of local officials, civic-minded activists, and members of Roman’s retinue rubbed elbows. Dramatic, sweeping views of Bakri’s renderings of the amphitheater, tower, condos, and serials of the site drew applause from the crowd.
But not everyone was impressed.
One area resident who had enthused about the project during Friday night’s event called The Clayton Crescent immediately afterwards. They had seen the Urbanize Atlanta article, expressed concerns about the project, and asked that, under the circumstances, they not be quoted as backing it.
Another e-mailed about the “Gello College” portfolio piece, “(1) This text is garbage. (2) The stock photograph is Widener Library at Harvard. (3) There is no Gello College.”
Several others took to social media channels to express concerns about the website and the development.
On Monday, The Clayton Crescent asked several individuals and entities linked to the development for comment on the inconsistencies in the websites and questions about how the project would be financed. The Clayton Crescent asked Deloach, Vincent, and a spokesperson for Roman United Monday about the project’s financial backers and whether KE International, Mwale, or Akon were involved. None had answered by late Monday night.
Who’s behind the deal?
On Friday, Roman and others would only say that the project is bring privately funded.
During Friday’s press conference, The Clayton Crescent asked Anderson, who previously had served on the Development Authority, what her role had been in bringing in the project to District 1.
“I just want to say, before, I was on the Development Authority, I know many of you all know that,” Anderson replied. “And when I was on the Development Authority, we had a lot of projects that were supposedly, that were supposedly going to come through, and through fruition like this. And so, before when I was on the Development Authority, we looked at a lot of live, work, eat, and play spaces. This was one of them. And, as I moved on to run for office, I wanted to make sure that we kept that vision going for District 1 and for Clayton County. We didn’t want to stop. So as I moved on, I made sure that I focused on live, work, eat, and play.
“I met with Mr. Vincent, I met with Ms. Deloach, and I met with Roman United. And I made it very clear that we want to push this project through. We want to make sure that we do what we say what we’re going to do for our citizens. So please know that I am adamant to make sure that we not only move this project through, but many projects throughout the county and throughout District 1 so we can build a better quality of life for our citizens, and for the people and for our seniors and for our babies, and for everyone here today.
“So that is how I work together with Roman United and with the Development Authority, and we’re going to continue this push forward. Just know that Clayton County is going to be the best county in this world. And we’re not just gonna have airplanes coming here. We’re gonna have people coming here. We have I-75 where we have people come, then they go to where? Florida. They’re going to Disney World. They’re going everywhere. So the world not only lands here, they come through here. And it’s time for us to start making it known that we are accepting businesses, we want you to come, and I’m gonna be here to take you.”
Vincent added, “When I needed help, I got the help from our county leadership. We had a lot of meetings. Mr. [Clayton County COO Detrick] Stanford was here, he had to leave, but I got that support. And it took two and a half years because we had to get the legal side of this squared away, to make sure everybody was protected. And when I needed that vote, I got the support from the BOC and Ms. Anderson was one of those positive votes. I want to make that perfectly clear. Her support was there.”
“And also, anything that he needs to get put through, don’t worry,” Anderson said. “We gotcha.”
Anderson was appointed unanimously to the board in its previous iteration in September 2017. The January 2, 2019 Board of Commissioners minutes sought candidates to fill the unfinished terms of (through March 2019) Anderson, Whayne Clark, and Michael Edmondson.
The Clayton Crescent also asked Anderson for comment Monday on questions about funding for the project. We’ll update with any response.
For Dodson, the project “will be just great for the county overall.”
“I think Lake City, someday, if this goes through as planned, will be on the lips of people all over the world,” Dodson said.
You can read past agendas and minutes from DACC/Invest Clayton’s meetings online at https://www.investclayton.com/meetings-minutes.php .