A long and winding road led to scheduled Jan. 28 ground-breaking of new College Football Hall of Fame

By Maria Saporta

Gary Stokan stood at the back of an Omni Hotel ballroom Monday morning as dignitaries celebrated the announcement that the ground-breaking for the new College Football Hall of Fame would happen on Jan. 28, 2013.

It’s been a long day in coming for a project that has had a series of starts and stops. But now it’s all hands on go for one of Atlanta’s newest attractions, which is expected to open by Aug. 29, 2014 — just in time for the college football season.

“This is an eight-year journey for me that is paying off,” said Stokan, who was the first president and CEO of Atlanta Hall Management (which is developing the Hall of Fame) and the executive who co-led the effort to get the National Football Foundation to select Atlanta for the attraction’s new home.

Stokan today continues in his role president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, a position he’s held since 1998.

Stokan was standing next to Steve Hatchell, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation. It was Hatchell who helped pick Atlanta as the location for the new College Football Hall of Fame and the person who stuck by the Atlanta project as it went through fund-raising challenges, a switch in sites for the Hall, a new governor, a new mayor and a change of leadership at Atlanta Hall Management.

“All of this is fantastic, just speaking from the standpoint of the National Football Foundation,” Hatchell said. “It is really good to have the mayor and the governor here.”

Asked about the ups and downs of the project, Hatchell said: “These things happen. There’s not a straight line to getting anything of significance done.”

Steve Robinson, chairman of Atlanta Hall Management and a top marketing executive for Chick-fil-A, said the real spark for the College Football Hall of Fame occurred about five years ago when the Chick-fil-A Bowl pledged to give $5 million towards the project if it could be matched.

Right after the Bowl made its decision, Robinson remembered flying down to Orlando to meet with Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy to see if he would match the $5 million. Robinson said that without hesitation, Cathy said: “It sounds like a great idea.” And he committed on the spot. That gave the effort $10 million right off the bat.

But then the economy went south and fundraising faltered.

“This achievement is so significant,” said Gov. Nathan Deal. “We have all come into this adventure at a very difficult (economic) time for our city, state and country.”

But Monday’s announcement reinforced the fact that “Atlanta is the heart of college football.” The governor went on to say that the project was a “capstone” of “cooperation” and a true public-private partnership.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the College Football Hall of Fame coupled with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is helping make the Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park “one of the most vital tourism corridors in the United States.”

Reed also alluded to the fact that Atlanta and the state stuck with the project.

“We are glad that the hall decided to make Atlanta home,” Reed said. “We got this done. That’s what I want Atlanta to be known for — a city that gets things done.”

For John Stephenson Sr., executive director of the J. Bulow Campbell Foundation, put Monday’s event in a historical context. His son, John Stephenson Jr., the interim president and CEO of the College Football Hall of Fame and a partner with Troutman Sanders, has been given credit for reformulating the project when it was on the verge of collapse.

“I’m so proud of you,” Stephenson told his son after the event was coming to a close.

Then the older Stephenson said that the biggest legacy of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta was Centennial Olympic Park. It was the decision by a core group of city leaders to turn acres and acres of surface parking lots and vacant commercial buildings into one of the biggest modern-day downtown parks in the country.

Since opening for the 1996 Olympics, Centennial Olympic Park has attracted the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, numerous hotels, residential and retail developments along its borders.

And in 2014, we’ll be able to add the College Football Hall of Fame and the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights to that Olympic legacy.

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