By Maria Saporta and J. Scott Trubey
Thursday, September 24, 2009, 10:28pm EDT
Modified: Friday, September 25, 2009, 1:00am
Many outstanding issues remain for Atlanta to land the College Football Hall of Fame, though officials said Thursday they are confident they can pull it off.
Executives with the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the National Football Foundation (NFF) acknowledge funding and a site for the $50 million facility have not been finalized. There is also a sunset provision in July 2010 after which both sides could conceivably walk away if the deal is not done.
And some members of the business community question whether there is sufficient financial support available from Atlanta companies as well as city and state governments suffering through a bitter economy.
The board of the NFF, which owns the college hall, voted Wednesday to approve a letter of intent to move the shrine from South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta. In the letter of intent, the representatives of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which will operate the college hall, committed to raise $50 million and to build a 50,000-square-foot facility.
Steve Hatchell, the president and CEO of the CFF, said Thursday he has been told by the Atlanta team “they are 85 percent there” toward the $50 million fundraising goal. But that does not seem to jive with comments made during and after a press conference by Chick-fil-A Bowl President Gary Stokan.
Chick-fil-A Inc. and the Chick-fil-A Bowl each have committed $5 million for a total of $10 million, and are the only entities to firmly commit financing, Stokan said.
“We don’t have any other commitments,” he said in an interview following the official announcement.
The City of Atlanta and the state government, both suffering steep tax revenue shortfalls, have offered financial support, but the details of which can, at best, be considered vague.
Stokan and Hatchell said they expect a deal to be finalized before the Chick-fil-A Bowl is played New Year’s Eve. But if funds cannot be raised, both sides can walk away from the deal after July 31.
“The deal is done,” Stokan said. “We’re committed to making this happen and confident it will, otherwise we wouldn’t have signed the [letter of intent].”
Stokan brushed aside questions involving the sunset provision, initially refusing to acknowledge the date itself. He also declined to answer specific questions about potential government funding, deferring to city and state officials.
“We will raise $50 million in some form or fashion,” Stokan said. “We hope our fundraising goes so well that there’s an upside to this. We have to raise [an additional] $40 million. We have committed to a building that will be open by September 2012. That’s what we are going to do.”
Charlie Gatlin, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, could not offer specifics of the state’s level of financial commitment to the Hall of Fame.
“We will be a partner in the financial part of it with the city and the private sector,” he said.
When pressed about how much the state would commit, Gatlin said: “I’m not sure where they will end up. They’re putting the budgets together now.
“We are committed to the package. It’s a matter of how we divide it up. We are on the team.”
It is possible the state’s contributions could be in low interest bond financing that would have to be repaid, sources said.
Gatlin did not elaborate on how the state would be involved, but Stokan said firm financial commitments from the state might not come until the 2010 legislative session.
Peggy McCormick, president of the Atlanta Development Authority, said the city would put “up to $1 million” into the project from its Economic Opportunity Fund.
“There are a variety of things that we could do,” McCormick said, adding the city needed to “put skin in the game” so that the state would also be part of the package.
“We are very excited about the economic impact,” she said.
Gregg Simon, the development authority’s manager of business engagement, said there also could be new market tax credits and some bond programs that could go into the project.
Hatchell, the NFF chief executive, said he was certain of the abilities of the Atlanta team to meet their financing commitments. Opt out clauses are part of any big deal, he said, adding he has been assured the team is most of the way to its goal.
“That’s what they have represented to us,” Hatchell said. “We are beyond confident. They want the Hall of Fame, and we have said we’re coming.”
Competition for corporate support
Major corporate support from Atlanta business beyond Chick-fil-A might also be a challenging prospect.
The announcement of the college hall, a coup for the city to be certain and a lift in a down economy, comes at a time when three other major philanthropic groups are beating the bushes for corporate support.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Center for Civil & Human Rights and the National Health Museum are each deep in capital campaigns that have struggled to meet funding goals amid a deep global recession.
Representatives of the civil rights center and the health museum were present at Thursday’s press conference.
“They are all very important projects, and we need to make sure that we have enough community resources to make them happen,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, the downtown business group, which has been closely involved in the redevelopment around Centennial Olympic Park.
The NFF’s head did not seem to be phased by potential fundraising competition.
“This is a big city that can go off and do a whole lot of things at one time,” Hatchell said.
Sponsorships from outside Atlanta are plausible given the national appeal of the sport. Hatchell said the board of the foundation, however, is not a part of the fundraising effort.
‘A Better Platform’
Relocating to Atlanta gives the college football shrine higher stature. Indeed, it would be the only major sports hall of fame in a major American city.
“This is a better platform,” Hatchell said, comparing the scope of Atlanta with South Bend. He denied that attendance, which has failed to meet expectations in South Bend, was the reason the hall is moving south.
“We can create something here that hasn’t been created before,” he said.
The foundation plans to enlarge its role in promoting the student athlete and positive role models in amateur athletics, spotlighting former college football players that have gone on to great success off the field. The NFF is also planning to expand its scholarship programs for high school athletes.
The college hall is taking a gamble by signing on with Atlanta. With the deal, the current college hall in South Bend will close in December 2010, and the Atlanta hall is not scheduled to open until September 2012.
Enshrinement for the Hall of Fame class of 2011 is slated to take place in Atlanta, Stokan said.
There are also some outstanding questions related to a location for the college football shrine.
Some sources have said the Chick-fil-A Bowl has an option to buy a site, currently a parking lot, on Centennial Olympic Park Drive.
Stokan said that is not the case and that officials are currently vetting four sites. He declined to identify the parcels, saying only that each meets criteria of being adjacent to the park, which has become a hub of tourist activity with the CNN Center, Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke and will be the future home of the Center for Civil & Human Rights.
The bowl has issued requests for proposals for architects, developers, designers and consultants. Stokan said bowl officials hope to have corporate sponsors identified and contracts for design and development awarded in time to draft a definitive agreement with the CFF in December.
Stokan said officials would have a clearer picture about financial commitments after meetings with corporations and Georgia lawmakers.
“It is going to take work. This is the celebration,” Stokan said after the press conference. “Now we are going to make this happen.”
Former University of Georgia football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley said he has no doubts about Atlanta’s ability to land the college hall.
“I really have confidence that it can be done,” said Dooley, an inductee to the Hall of Fame who attended the announcement.