Coming Attractions Boost Energy Downtown

March 25,2013


If there are other downtowns with this many major works in progress, their numbers are very few.

So says Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO William Pate, speaking of three projects slated to open next year in an area that already boasts a healthy tourism trade.

Expected to be complete during the first part of 2014 is the Atlanta Streetcar project, providing an east-west link from the Centennial Olympic Park area to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District. By summer 2014, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights will hold its grand opening, followed by the College Football Hall of Fame in the fall.

“Most cities would be happy to have one of these,” Pate said. “It’s very indicative of a healthy city when you’ve got that much activity going on.”

But it isn’t the timing of these three major tourist draws that will have the greatest impact, but location.

“All three of these additional pieces will be around the park, and one of the things about it is that it provides a lot of variety, all within walking distance of one another and within walking distance of major convention hotels. That’s a pretty attractive set of offerings.”

The combined end result downtown will be a catalytic and positive one, said City Councilman Kwanza Hall, whose district encompasses downtown.

The new projects, likely followed by subsequent development of hotels, motels and smaller attractions, are part of a momentum that began with Centennial Olympic Park, Hall said.

“It’s almost like a master-planned development,” he said. “Now, we are at a place where we’ve got potential development sites in existence, and we are seeing two of those hit in the same year. It’s going to attract a huge amount of tourism and new energy for the area.”

Perhaps even drawing a few of Atlanta’s older residents, whose last ride was more than 60 years ago, the streetcar project will bring not only walkability to downtown, but a sense of nostalgia.

“The streetcar will be an attraction in itself. There are those who remember the last ride they took, and also the young folks who have never ridden a streetcar before,” Hall said.

It isn’t just out-of-towners that will be drawn to Atlanta.

“There will be no excuse for people outside the Perimeter not to come downtown and partake in what Atlanta has to offer,” said downtown resident Bill Balzer, who along with his wife, Peg, purchased, renovated and donated the building known as Balzer Theater at Herren’s. “They can [take] MARTA into town and then use the trolley to navigate the city without having to drive or find parking.”

Aside from a tourist attraction, the streetcar will be a functional addition to the city’s transit, he said, since thousands of Georgia State University students and downtown workers will make use of the trolley.

The Balzers, too, say they look forward to riding to spots such as Noni’s on Edgewood.

Once cut off by the freeway, the city’s King District will now quite literally be connected with downtown by the city’s first major east-west connection in a long time, said Doug Shipman, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

“The streetcar is going to create a direct link to the King District,” he said. “Long-term, that’s going to change the way people move around downtown.”

The College Football Hall of Fame will be built and operated by the nonprofit Atlanta Hall Management Inc.

Once located in South Bend, Ind., the museum devoted to college football will soon open its estimated 30,000 square feet of exhibit space in what Atlanta Hall Management CEO John Stephenson calls the perfect spot. Its location, he said, was chosen because it would attract not only football fans attending games at the Georgia Dome, but millions of convention attendees and tourists who visit the city each year.

An estimated 8 million people visit downtown annually, he said, “and we will be within walking distance of 10,000 hotel rooms.”

The World of Coca-Cola and Georgia Aquarium each draw between 1 million and 2 million visitors a year, he said. “Downtown Atlanta is undergoing a long resurgence of economic development.”

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is expected to drive interest from convention and academic planners.

“Because of our historical nature, we’ll see other types of groups choosing Atlanta,” Shipman said.

That in turn drives other attractions, hotels and rental cars, said Shipman, who cited the raised tourism status of cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., or Boston, each of which sports multiple cultural institutions.

Soon, visitors who come to Atlanta to tour CNN Center, the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola will have five major draws.

“If you have three, people will come and choose two,” Shipman said. “But if you have five, people choose three or four and then stay two or three days. Now, we are going to have five, and then you’re going to start seeing people saying, ‘Well, I need to see three or four, so I need to stay two days,’ and that changes the nature of the trip.