Past sale of Underground Atlanta, other assets eases Atlanta’s budget during pandemic
By David Pendered
Atlanta’s past sale of trophy properties, such as Underground Atlanta, has helped ease pressure on the city’s upcoming budget and put Atlanta ahead of other governments that have kept assets such as public golf courses – another item Atlanta unloaded.
Atlanta disposed of major assets during the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Reed and his supporters, including members of the Atlanta City Council, withstood pointed criticism from then-Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) and others.
Reed pursued the strategy, armed with recommendations from a blue ribbon task force he established. The co-chairs were Richard Anderson, then the CEO of Delta Airlines, and Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook. The recommendations to sell assets and curb expenses were years ahead of some now being discussed to navigate today’s pandemic-ridden economy.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is said to be considering convening a similar task force in the next six months. She served on the original panel, in 2014. The purpose would be to help plot a course if the economy does not rebound by the degree expected in the fairly robust revenue estimate in the current budget proposal. The fiscal year begins July 1.
Discussions of such a panel appear to have been overwhelmed by the need to respond to demonstrations and disturbances related to the May 25 death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. Then there was the officer-involved shooting death of Rayshard Brooks on June 12, and the resignation of Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields on June 13.
The idea of governments selling non-essential assets is again in the buzz as a way to offset budget shortfalls of states, counties and cities. Eric Berman, a former deputy comptroller for Massachusetts, made this observation in a May 28 panel discussion convened by the Volcker Alliance and Penn Institute for Urban Research:
- “Dispose of stadiums, convention centers, airports and golf courses that don’t do a lot in this new economy we’re transitioning into.”
Berman recognized the political challenges of such sales and used as an example the famed Bethpage State Park Golf Course, on Long Island. It’s home to major tournaments and the Black Course, which Golf Digest has ranked as 6th toughest in the country. Then Berman stated the position of not a politician, but a financial advisor:
- “Will New York put the golf courses at Bethpage up for market? No. But desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Because of the asset sales or swaps executed during Reed’s administration, the city is now is off the hook for maintaining and operating facilities including:
- Underground Atlanta;
- Atlanta Civic Center;
- Bobby Jones Golf Course;
- Atlanta Cyclorama.
Plus two facilities that had been owned by the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, which was within the city’s sphere of influence:
- Turner Field;
- Fanplex, a purported family-oriented attraction near Turner Field.
None of the parcels has been developed into revenue-generating powerhouses for the city and county. The more relevant point, from the city taxpayers’ perspective, is that another entity is paying to maintain them.
Meantime, the owners who purchased them were chosen for their long-range turnaround plans:
- Underground Atlanta is to emerge as a mixed use residential/retail hub, developed by WRS, a developer from South Carolina;
- The civic center, purchased by the Atlanta Housing Authority, is to be redeveloped as a mixed use residential/retail hub with dwellings affordable to those earning the salaries of schoolteachers;
- The Bobby Jones Golf Course was swapped to the state for parking decks that became part of the deal at Underground Atlanta. The state arranged for the golf course and its property to be refurbished;
- The Atlanta Cyclorama was shipped to the Atlanta History Center, which had funds to restore the Battle of Atlanta painting. The cyclorama’s former site at Zoo Atlanta enabled that facility to expand;
- Turner Field was purchased by a consortium led by Georgia State University and Carter. The ballpark was converted for use by GSU’s football team and the rest of the property is to be developed as a residential/retail/office/hotel complex;
- Fanplex has become the site of a sewage facility that’s to curb chronic flooding in the stadium neighborhood.