By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on October 30, 2015
Two major attractions opened in downtown Atlanta last year within two of months and within yards of each other — the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame.
Although both attractions are quite different, the parallels between them are striking. They both were years in the making, slowed down in part by the economic recession. Both became civic initiatives with community leaders understanding how they could help define Atlanta as a destination, especially around Centennial Olympic Park.
Both attractions have had non-traditional founding CEOs who developed the projects, opened their buildings and stayed on for the first year. And today, both CEOs have moved on — back to the private sector. And the attractions are facing their second year in business while looking for permanent leaders.
Although neither attraction has met its first-year attendance projections, they are both financially sound.
John Stephenson Jr., CEO of the College Football Hall of Fame, announced Oct. 26 that he will join Chick- fil-A inc. on Nov. 9 as the company’s director of strategic partnerships and special projects.
“Having the opportunity to join the team at Chick-fil-A Inc. was very flattering, and it came at an opportune time with one year under our belt,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson’s announcement followed Doug Shipman’s departure in July as CEO of the Center of Civil and Human Rights to become the CEO of BrightHouse Consulting.
“It was a major accomplishment to open,” Shipman said of the Center and the Hall of Fame. “Both of them have become relevant, and they have very quickly become fixtures locally and nationally. They are both successful works in progress.”
Many attractions around the country, such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., have been viewed as busts. That’s not the case in either of Atlanta’s two newest attractions. “We are satisfied with where we are, and we are in sound business shape,” Stephenson said.
The Hall initially projected an annual attendance of about 500,000 people, a number it didn’t reach, but leaders would not disclose how many people visited the Hall in its first year. “Because we are still adjusting, we are not going to release our numbers,” Stephenson said.
But Murry Bowden, chair of Atlanta Hall Management that oversees the College Football Hall of Fame, noted the Hall was relocated to Atlanta from South Bend, Ind., where it had an annual visitation of between 40,000 and 60,000. “Atlanta was almost the perfect place for this,” said Bowden, who also serves on the board of the National Football Foundation which decided to make the move. “It’s in the middle of football country, and it’s in the middle of a big city.”
Bowden said a more realistic expectation might be an annual visitation of between 300,000 and 400,000.
“I’m not at all disappointed with where we are. It’s way more than South Bend,” Bowden said. “But we are not where we want to be. We need to figure out what is the right number and what is sustainable. We are very close, but we have to right-size the operation.”
Bowden, founder and CEO of Houston-based apartment development firm Hanover Co. and a Hall of Fame inductee, said there is a “path to sustainability” that includes paying off a $10 million construction loan.
John Christie, the Hall’s COO who has been with the project from its infancy, will become interim CEO. He is a contender for the top job, although there will be a national search.
Meanwhile, Stephenson said he will always feel connected to the Hall given that Chick-fil-A has been the Hall’s top corporate partner. “This is my baby,” Stephenson said. “I will never be far away from it.”
At the Center for Civil and Human Rights, Shipman also remains involved as a board member, while interim CEO Deborah Richardson is not a candidate for the job. A national search is underway.
“The Center gives us an opportunity to really link Atlanta’s history with the events happening around the world,” Franklin said. “We are essentially a debt-free attraction. Now that we are up an running, the question is what do we do next?”
The Center had projected annual attendance of about 350,000, which it admits it did not reach but would not disclose its numbers. “Group sales have been stronger than anticipated, and walk-up sales have been weaker than expected,” Franklin said. “It doesn’t really matter because we’ve reached our financial numbers.”
A.J. Robinson, president and CEO of Central Atlanta Progress, who has been integrally involved with both projects, said that in both cases “we have a really good product.” But there’s more involved than just opening the doors partly because the competition for entertainment dollars is so intense.
“That is good because it makes everybody better,” Robinson said. “We have a critical mass of eclectic attractions, and these institutions are going to find their operational sweet spot.”
Franklin said donors and supporters are “thrilled” with the Center. “They love the place. Forget the numbers. It is inspirational and it is educational. And we are just getting started.
“Bowden echoed that sentiment about the Hall. “We want to embed ourselves into the fabric of Atlanta,” Bowden said, adding there are “no regrets” about moving to Atlanta. “It really is a wonderful gem for the City of Atlanta and for the National Football Foundation.”