It’s a new game for College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta

By Maria Saporta and Amy Wenk
Friday, May 11, 2012

The proposed College Football Hall of Fame is now in full restart mode with definitive plans to open the attraction by the end of 2014.

The project is receiving renewed commitment and support among its various partners and sponsors following a change in leadership late last year.

“It’s a new day for the project,” said John Stephenson Jr., the interim CEO of Atlanta Hall Management Inc., the entity that is coordinating the development of the Hall of Fame.

The National Football Foundation also has renewed its commitment to building the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, according to Steven Hatchell, president and CEO.

The National Football Foundation has granted a 30-year license to Atlanta Hall Management to build and operate the hall, with four five-year options.

“We’re obviously really committed,” Hatchell said. “Our group likes John a lot. I think there’s a renewed sense of why we want to come to Atlanta. We would have been long gone if we didn’t like Atlanta.”

Stephenson and his team have taken the past several months to review every aspect of the project to make sure it will be financially viable. The business model calls for the Hall of Fame to be totally supported by revenues from ticket sales, retail and events rather than being dependent on annual sponsorships or fundraising.

Preliminary results of the review call for the project to be a bit smaller and a bit cheaper. Plans currently call for a facility that will cost up to $60 million and will have a total of 90,000 square feet, including a football field that will serve as an event space. There will be about 30,000 square feet of exhibit space.

“It will be less, but it won’t be drastically different,” said Stephenson, a partner at Troutman Sanders LLP who is on loan to the Hall of Fame. Stephenson took over for Gary Stokan, who resigned in early November from Atlanta Hall Management, saying the group needed a prominent CEO to lead the fundraising effort across the goal line.

“In December, after Gary went to focus on the bowls, we told everybody stop … we are going to regroup,” Stephenson said. “We have decided to go for a project that is worthy of the site and of the city. You had to be happy with what you built on Day One. You only open once.”

Stephenson said the project has raised a total of $35 million in private commitments primarily from sponsors, but he said more announcements on fundraising efforts will be made in the next 30 to 60 days. “We’ve got some deals on the doorstep,” he said.

Back in 2009, the National Football Foundation voted to move the College Football Hall of Fame from South Bend, Ind., to downtown Atlanta around Centennial Olympic Park. The goal at the time was to open the attraction in 2012. But a combination of the Great Recession, fund-raising challenges and management issues stalled the project.

“We are so excited about this,” said Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A Inc., which has been the biggest corporate supporter of the Hall of Fame in Atlanta. “We have had some challenges related to funding, and people have been wondering whether it’s going to happen.”

Hatchell said his foundation believed Atlanta was the right place to “showcase the past, the present and the future” of college football.
Despite chatter that the attraction would be lured away by other cities such as Dallas, the project seems committed to finding a home in Atlanta.

“This is the best place for the College Football Hall of Fame, and it’s best for the good of the game,” he said, because of the city’s number of corporate headquarters, transportation options and college football fan base. “That’s why we are patient here.”

Hatchell did say his foundation was disappointed and “unhappy” that the project had been delayed. But the foundation reaffirmed its commitment to Atlanta after Stephenson made a presentation to the foundation in Dallas on April 18 and said the Hall would open by the end of 2014.

“I think that’s the end of the elasticity,” Hatchell added.

Under Stephenson’s leadership, several prominent leaders have joined the Atlanta Hall Management board, including William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, and A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress.

“I think there were some people sitting on the fence,” Cathy said. “We had to get people off the fence.”

The Hall of Fame would join a host of tourist attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium, Philips Arena, the Georgia Dome and CNN Center around Centennial Olympic Park, which blossomed with new developments after the 1996 Olympics.

The Hall of Fame could become one of the city’s biggest tourist magnets because of Atlanta’s standing as a college football powerhouse and the rich traditions of Georgia Tech and The University of Georgia. The city already hosts the SEC championship, one of college football’s biggest games, every year.

The Hall of Fame is planned to be located on the 2.7-acre Green Parking Lot off Marietta Street. The attraction is projected to have around 500,000 visitors per year, Stephenson said. By comparison, the Hall of Fame in South Bend has attracted less than 70,000 annual visitors.

With ticket prices at $17.50 per person, the total gross revenue is estimated at $8.7 million in the attraction’s third year (when the visitor count is expected to stabilize).

Atlanta Hall Management is still counting on $15 million in general obligation bonds from the state of Georgia that will go toward construction of a six-level, 400-plus space parking deck on the north side of the site, near STATS restaurant, as well as a covered pedestrian walkway from the attraction to the Georgia World Congress Center’s Hall A. The bonds, which will not have to be repaid, also will be used to extend Baker Street and close Foundry Street near the GWCC, he said.

“We look forward to continuing the discussion of achieving this overall goal as Atlanta Hall Management and other private entities meet their [financial] commitment to this important project,” Bart Gobeil, Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief operating officer, said in a statement.

Construction should take about 18 months and is expected to start later this year.

“It’s going to be an exciting thing for Atlanta,” Cathy said. “Atlanta is going to continue to be the epicenter for college football.”

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