By Amy Wenk and Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on April 10, 2015
As Centennial Olympic Park nears its 20th birthday, an effort is underway to raise $46.5 million to enhance downtown’s premier gathering space, one of the most catalytic legacies from the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
The Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA), the state agency that oversees the park as part of its 220-acre campus, is exploring the feasibility of the capital campaign to fund major improvements to the 21-acre green space.
The GWCCA, working with fundraising firm Coxe Curry & Associates, recently released a preliminary case statement to gauge the interest of the city’s philanthropic community.
“We are going through a phased feasibility,” said Frank Poe, executive director of the GWCCA. “Our goal would be to have the funding in place in 2016.”
The proposed $46.5 million campaign would fund improvements to open up the park’s access to the surrounding neighborhood, expand its footprint through property acquisition, improve its layout, add amenities to attract new visitors, and enhance its events and programs.
“Is there a willingness and interest to recapitalize the park?” Poe asked rhetorically. “We believe we have a compelling case. We are testing that scope.”
Centennial Olympic Park was conceived in late 1993 by Billy Payne, who led the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. He envisioned a world-class gathering spot where at the time stood a blighted district of vacant buildings and surface parking lots.
Led by the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation (which covered more than half of the initial price tag for the park), private sector donors contributed $48 million to acquire the land and build Centennial Olympic Park. The sale of nearly 500,000 commemorative bricks provided another $15 million to the park effort.
Today, Centennial Olympic Park sits at the center of what’s become a bustling convention and tourism destination. An estimated 3 million people come to the green space each year, and it now generates about $2 million of its $3.5 million annual operating budget.
Over the past two decades, the park has acted as an magnet, attracting about $2.2 billion worth of new development to downtown. That includes nine hotels, seven residential towers and a host of new attractions such as Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, Center for Civil and Human Rights, and SkyView Atlanta.
It’s estimated that another roughly $2.6 billion of new investment is in the pipeline near the park, including the new Atlanta Falcons stadium.
“It’s the most impactful physical legacy of the Atlanta Olympics,” said Pete McTier, who was president of the Woodruff Foundation when Centennial Olympic Park was first envisioned. He stepped down April 7 as trustee of the foundation. “I think it can continue to be enhanced without being overbuilt.”
One of the most dramatic plans now for the park is to acquire and replace the Metro Atlanta Chamber building at the corner of Andrew Young International Boulevard and Marietta Street.
GWCCA wants to extend the park along Marietta Street and open up views to the new College Football Hall of Fame, thus creating a more inviting front door for the convention center.
GWCCA now is discussing a deal to buy the Chamber building for $10.5 million. It would cost about $2.5 million to tear down the structure and turn it into park land.“We have had conversations” with Chamber officials, Poe said. “They understand that having the funds necessary to acquire it is a prerequisite.”
Another $20 million could go toward land acquisition. In addition to the Chamber building, other sites are eyed on the park’s eastern edge to expand its footprint and create a more scenic “welcome center” for the hotel and convention district.
Other planned improvements include revamping the section of Andrew Young International Boulevard that runs through the park. Recently closed to cars, the roadway would be turned into a landscaped plaza, providing a needed buffer to ensure the safety of those enjoying the nearby Fountain of Rings.
The park’s Southern Company Amphitheater would get a nearly $3 million makeover. Its seating capacity would increase from 1,200 to 2,000 patrons. New overhead structures would protect people from poor weather, and the sound and lighting systems would be upgraded.
The park would also open up its access to the surrounding community.
“It was designed originally to be more introspective,” Poe said due to the dilapidated state downtown was in at the time.
A grand entrance would be created at the corner of Baker Street and Centennial Olympic Park Drive, across from the Children’s Museum of Atlanta.
New amenities including a multi-use events space (a roughly $3.6 million project that would come next to the Georgia Aquarium), a bike depot and new trail connections are also proposed.
The GWCCA has spent about three years developing a strategic vision for the park to make it more welcoming to the city and the attractions and hotels that have since risen along its borders. The park’s original architects, AECOM, were brought in to develop a master plan.
Poe said regardless of whether the capital campaign moves forward, the GWCCA will continue to maintain and operate the park. Since 1996, the park has received more than $47 million in operating support and capital reinvestment from the agency, as well as nearly $6 million in state appropriations.
“I think we have displayed that we have been good stewards of that investment,” Poe said. “If nothing is raised for the park, we are going to continue to maintain the park. [But] the ability to make major capital improvements won’t be there.”