At Dan Graveline’s retirement party last week, the theme of those paying him tribute was the same. They all credited Graveline for his professionalism in running one the best convention centers in the United States.
Graveline is the only executive director that the Georgia World Congress Center has known in its 33-year history. He came to Atlanta after a group of state officials went on a tour of convention centers in the mid-1970s and met Graveline, who was then assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Convention Center.
In short, when searching for someone to run its new convention center, state leaders turned to a professional who understood the meeting and convention industry. That was 1976.
Now the state is facing the same challenge — selecting the ideal person to run one of the largest convention centers in the United States.
The GWCC Authority has been in a search mode for months to find Graveline’s replacement. The search has been in the news recently when it was disclosed that State Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta) was interested in the job.
Speaker Pro Tem Burkhalter, who has been on the GWCC’s Legislative Overview Committee, actually decided to not run for Speaker of the House hoping that he would be tapped as the GWCC’s executive director.
But several civic and state leaders privately expressed concern to GWCC officials that hiring Burkhalter would send the wrong signal that the convention center was becoming a politically-run, rather than a professionally-run, operation.
While not addressing the Burkhalter situation directly, GWCC Authority Chairman Bob Prather (who also is chairing the search committee) said the convention center has a stellar national reputation.
“At so many convention centers, there is a lot of politics involved.,” Prather said. “We have interviewed five directors of existing convention centers. All of them have said: ‘This would be the pinnacle of my career to get this job.’ The Georgia World Congress Center has the reputation of being the best run convention center in the United States.”
Now the search committee has narrowed the field of candidates to four or five finalists, Prather said. A final round of interviews is expected in early January.
One of the search committee’s key goals is to keep the convention center free of politics.
“No question,” Prather said. “Everybody on the board is determined that we keep it non-political and keep it as businesslike as it has been for the last 33 years and hopefully how it will be for the next 33 years.”
Prather said that’s the direction that Gov. Sonny Perdue gave given the search committee.
“Sonny Perdue has been great throughout this whole process,” Prather said. “He said he wanted to stay informed. But he let us know right up front that it was important to get the most qualified person we could find.”
All the GWCC board members are governor appointees. But in the history of the center, Prather said governors almost always have appointed business leaders who have the professional credentials to oversee the operations of the convention center.
Prather, president and chief operating officers of Gray Television Inc., has been on the GWCC board for more than 16 years.
“Because Dan has done such a great job, it was easy,” Prather said. “It’s been such a pleasure to watch Dan operate for 16 years.”
Actually, Graveline had been grooming Khalil Johnson to be his successor. Johnson, his No. 2 executive, had managed the Georgia Dome and then became the center’s chief operating officer. But Johnson surprisingly decided to retire earlier this year, about six months before Graveline announced his retirement.
Graveline, 68, jokingly has said Johnson didn’t quite understand how succession is supposed to work.
Despite that hiccup, GWCC leaders said Graveline has worked hard to develop a deep bench of managers at the center.
In fact, there have been three internal candidates considered during the search: Kevin Duvall, who was appointed GWCC’s chief operating officer after Johnson left; Mark Zimmerman, the GWCC’s general manager; and Carl Adkins, general manager of the Georgia Dome.
Without disclosing which one, Prather said that one of the internal candidates has moved to the next round.
The job of running the Georgia World Congress Center operations is complex and multi-faceted. Not only does it include managing one of the largest convention centers in the county. It also includes overseeing the Georgia Dome, the home of the Atlanta Falcons. And it includes operating the state-owned Centennial Olympic Park.
Currently, a master plan is underway to determine the possibility of building a new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons or totally revamping the existing Georgia Dome.
At the retirement party, Duvall said Graveline duties have included managing 12 different properties with 6.1 million square feet of space. The entire complex represents a $980 million investment that has had a $38 billion economic impact since 1992.
Prather also said the job entails pleasing several different constituencies — GWCC customers, exhibitors, meeting planners, hospitality officials, the Atlanta Falcons, national sports officials, the governor, legislators, employees and the community at large.
“It’s a complicated job,” Prather said. “Whoever takes his place will have a tough time following Dan.”