By Maria Saporta
Friday, November 12, 2010
Eight years ago, even before he opened the Georgia Aquarium, Bernie Marcus envisioned Atlanta having its own version of the London Eye.
The London Eye, now 11 years old, has become one of Europe’s top destinations, attracting 3.7 million riders a year, turning a profit at every rotation along the way.
“I thought this would be absolutely sensational,” Marcus said of bringing the London Eye to Atlanta. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There is no sound. There’s virtually no movement. All of a sudden you are up 45 floors looking around 360 degrees.”
But Marcus, who rode the London Eye a couple of months ago, was quick to point out: “It is NOT a Ferris wheel. Typical Ferris wheels are ugly and unsightly. It’s almost invisible. You can see through it.”
Coincidentally, last January, Marcus received a phone call at his home in Florida. It was Martin Leboff, a family friend, who told Marcus he was part of a team that wanted to bring a replica of the London Eye to North America and that Atlanta was the top prospect.
“They came to us out of the blue,” Marcus said in an exclusive interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle. “Marty called me and said that Atlanta is where they wanted to be.”
That initial conversation culminated the week of Nov. 8 with Leboff and his partners coming to Atlanta to make a presentation to top business and civic leaders. The evening reception was held at the law offices of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, which is working with the team to bring the $200 million attraction to Atlanta.
“We are putting our emphasis on Atlanta,” Leboff said in an interview. “We really are just introducing the project to Atlanta. The reason we are here is because of Bernie, and Bernie has put us together with folks here.”
After the evening presentation, The Atlanta Eye LLC team was encouraged. “We wanted to see what kind of appetite there was,” Marcus said. “And everybody thought this would be a very positive development. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
David Marks, the architect who envisioned the London Eye and owns the rights to the design, agreed.
“If we had had that kind of support in London, we would have achieved success a lot earlier,” Marks said. “It looks like there’s a very strong desire for this in Atlanta. It seems to have a great head of steam behind it.”
Leboff echoed that sentiment. “There’s a lot of momentum among the powers that be in Atlanta that should facilitate this project moving forward in a very timely basis,” he said.
The Atlanta Eye team, which also includes Neils and Jeff Jorgensen of Montreal, now has two major tasks — finding the best location for the attraction and securing the investors to build the project.
It would take about 18 to 22 months to build, and the hope would be to have it close to completion when London is hosting the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
The team is looking at sites in the vicinity of Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, CNN Center and the proposed National Center for Civil & Human Rights. It has commissioned Scott Taylor of real estate firm Carter to come up with specific sites between 2 and 3 acres.
“We need to find the right place for it,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, the downtown business organization. “We are becoming a very attractive location for a very eclectic group of assets that are defining us as a tourist destination with something for everyone. This shows that downtown remains vibrant and attractive to large capital investments.”
As for raising the money, Leboff said, the team is talking to potential investors. “Our advisers said you first must go to try to raise money in Atlanta and offer it to the powers that be,” Leboff said.
Marcus, however, does not have a financial stake in the project. He said that because of his philanthropic investment in the Georgia Aquarium, it was important for him to not have a conflict of interest with the for-profit Atlanta Eye project.
But Marcus said he is an enthusiastic supporter of the project, and he believes it will have a tremendous economic impact on the city and state by giving tourists and conventioneers another reason to spend more time and money in Atlanta.
“We raised the money successfully in London,” Marks said. “I’ve got no reason to believe it can’t be done here.”
Last year, Leboff said the London Eye generated a profit of 30 million British pounds — the equivalent of a little more than $48 million U.S. — with 3.7 million visitors.
According to an analysis by Economic Research Associates, the Atlanta Eye would attract at least 2.6 million visitors. Also, the Atlanta Eye would have a couple of other revenue sources that the financial structure of the London Eye does not. In Atlanta, the investors would be able to keep revenues from the photo concession, the retail shops and naming rights.
The physical characteristics of the Atlanta Eye will be “an exact replica” or “clone” of the London Eye, Leboff said. It will be 45 stories high, weighing 23,000 tons. Each capsule will hold up to 25 people, and each one costs $750,000. The attraction is expected to become a favorite spot for weddings, celebrations, marketing promotions, special events, movies and advertisement, just as it has in London.
“It’s a thrilling, yet very calm experience,” Marks said. “It is something to lift people out of the hum-drum of their daily lives on the ground.”
William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the project would become one of several exciting projects scheduled to open in the next couple of years.
There will be the new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the new Center for Civil & Human Rights, the new Atlanta streetcar project that will connect Centennial Olympic Park with the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district, and a possible College Football Hall of Fame.
But Marcus said Atlanta will need to rally around the project. “If it doesn’t come here, it’s going to go to another city,” he said.
The two McKenna Long representatives working on the project are Eric Tanenblatt, the firm’s senior managing director; and former state legislator Mark Burkhalter, who represents the firm in London.
“It’s exciting that Atlanta is going to have first crack at this,” said Burkhalter, who has seen how the London Eye is contributing to the city’s profile. “I call it the most unimposing, imposing structure there is. It is an engineering marvel.”
For Leboff, the Atlanta Eye is “a happy project” that “brings a smile to everybody’s face.” He would like those smiles to shine on Atlanta.
“Essentially it’s time for Atlanta to either embrace us or not,” Leboff said. “We are under some time constraints because if we can’t do it here, we will have to look elsewhere.”