By Maria Saporta
First in a two-part series about the future of the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s headquarters building
Back in November 1985, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce revealed its desire to build and own a home of its own.
Instead of just being a tenant in a downtown office building (at the time, its lease was running out in the Omni International office building). Media mogul Ted Turner was turning the complex into CNN Center and the headquarters for Turner Broadcasting System.
Now 30 years later, the situation has turned upside down. CNN Center is getting emptier by the day. And the Metro Atlanta Chamber is in negotiations to sell its building on the edge of Centennial Olympic Park to the Georgia World Congress Center.
Sometimes living and working in Atlanta can be so disorienting when few developments ever really seem to be planted in the ground.
Back in 1985, the executives who then were heading up the Atlanta Chamber decided it was time for the business association to build its own stand-alone home downtown.
“For a 125-year-old organization, it probably makes sense for us to own our own facility, especially since we plan to be around for another 125 years,” said Gerald Bartels, who in 1985 was the chamber’s top executive. “The increased visibility and accessibility will help us to better serve our members. With the number of visitors that come to Atlanta these days, we need visibility and accessibility to better serve the community.”
So business leaders raised the money and found a site across Marietta Street from the Omni International hotel.
To truly envision what a pioneering move it was, try to rewind the clock 30 years. At the time, the property between the Omni and the downtown hotel district was a sea of surface parking lots sprinkled with mostly-vacant one-story or two-story industrial buildings.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this was one of the least attractive spots in downtown Atlanta.
But a couple of years later, the Atlanta Chamber’s building opened for business.
No one knew at the time that in September 1990 Atlanta would be selected to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games or that in 1994 the city’s visionaries believed the area surrounding the Chamber building would make a wonderful new downtown park – a gathering place during the Games and a magnet for future development in the central city.
In fact, in preparation for the Olympics, the Chamber expanded its building and developed a rooftop terrace overlooking the new Centennial Olympic Park.
In many ways, the building of the Metro Atlanta Chamber literally was in the catbird seat. National television stations broadcast their shows from the building during the Olympics. Daily press conferences gave local, national and international media a run down of how Atlanta was handling the event.
And then, when the world’s eyes focused on the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park during the middle of the Games, the Chamber building again was strategically positioned – in the center of it all. Business leaders a decade earlier certainly had made a fortuitous decision when they decided to locate a stand-alone Chamber building in that location.
It has been exactly 19 years since Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympic Games. Since then, billions of dollars in new development has popped up around Centennial Olympic Park – with few signs that it is slowing down.
The Georgia Aquarium, the new World of Coca-Cola, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame are just some of the new attractions encircling the park.
Add condo towers and apartment buildings with new hotels and restaurants, and the area has been totally transformed from how it was three decades ago.
But all this success could be squeezing the Metro Atlanta Chamber out of its home.
The Georgia World Congress Center has ambitious plans to refurbish Centennial Olympic Park and to create a grand new entrance into the city’s convention center. As part of the refurbishment, the GWCC is proposing acquiring the Chamber building, tearing it down and turning the site into park space. One reason given early on was to provide a clear vista to the College Football of Fame from across the park.
Officials from the Metro Atlanta Chamber are going along with the plan – thinking they might as well just become tenants in some downtown office building.
Meanwhile, as someone who has seen how the Chamber building has evolved over the decades, I must say that the rooftop terrace is one of the most special places to go in the city.
Back in 2003, the late J.B. Fuqua donated $700,000 so that the Metro Atlanta Chamber could build a roof structure to partially enclose the rooftop terrace. The penthouse perch has become a popular spot to entertain and host special events.
Every 4th of July, the Georgia World Congress Center invites special guests to the rooftop terrace to watch one of the most spectacular fireworks displays in the region.
This year’s Independence Day event was especially poignant because I couldn’t help but wonder – will this be the last year that we as a city will be able to enjoy this most special perch?
Oh Atlanta – a city that is constantly in motion – developing, building, demolishing, rebuilding. And as we reach another transient end, I wonder when we will start building a city of permanence.
Next week’s column will explore the pros and cons of the Metro Atlanta Chamber plans to sell its building. Does the Chamber lose part of its brand and visibility if it doesn’t have its own building? And does it make sense to part ways with such a prime piece of real estate – especially now when this part of downtown has become such a wonderful vista for promoting Atlanta?