Varying views on value of Atlanta Chamber having its own home

By Maria Saporta

Mixed emotions surround the possibility of the Metro Atlanta Chamber selling its headquarters overlooking Centennial Olympic Park.

A host of issues – and a myriad of views – are wrapped around the proposal by the Georgia World Congress Center to buy the building, tear it down and replace it with green space.

Originally, the idea was to open up the front door of the convention center and the newly-built College Football Hall of Fame as part of a master plan to re-invest in Centennial Olympic Park as it celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2016.

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Rendering of a refreshed Centennial Olympic Park without a Metro Atlanta Chamber building (Special: GWCC)

This column features varying views from several people who were willing to share their thoughts and perspectives. It follows a column that I wrote two weeks ago addressing the history of the building and the area.

The hope is that we as a community can openly weigh in on what is the best avenue forward as a city.

There are those who believe the Chamber should stay where it is in the existing building.

There are those who believe the Chamber should rebuild a new home on the same site.

There are others who believe that the Chamber should have its own building, but that it could be located elsewhere.

And then there is the view that the Chamber no longer needs the building, and it should just lease office space in a building downtown.

Let’s begin with the view from Hala Moddelmog, who became president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber in January, 2014.

Moddelmog said the Chamber leadership has decided that if it sells the building, the organization will continue to be based downtown – most likely in leased space.

Metro Atlanta Chamber

Metro Atlanta Chamber building on July 4, 2015 (Photo: Maria Saporta)

“I understand the emotion around the building and having a place,” Moddelmog said. “A building can be part of a brand and a place where people can congregate. We are going to miss the roof top. We are going to miss the Rotunda. But we will always be looking for ways to showcase our city. We also want to be good corporate citizens. If Centennial Olympic Park wants to be refreshed and celebrated, that’s a good thing.”

Jenner Wood, a SunTrust executive who is chair-elect of the Chamber, said that if the GWCC presents a contract with the terms that “we have verbally agreed to, we will accept it.”

(It has previously been reported that the sales price would be in the range of $10.5 million.)

By the way, Chamber Chairman Larry Gellerstedt III, who is the CEO of Cousins Properties, recused himself from the discussion.

Cousins owns the 191 Peachtree building, a pre-eminent downtown tower, and Wood acknowledged that there would have been a perception as well as a real conflict of interest if Gellerstedt were to have been involved.

“We wouldn’t want to be constrained from making the best deal for the Chamber based upon a perceived conflict,” Wood added. “We weren’t looking to leave. This has been a wonderful location for the Chamber – both with the visibility and economically. But I don’t think we have to have a physical site to keep our visibility in the community.”

Chamber building

A view of the existing Chamber building on July 4 with Rotunda and the rooftop terrace above (Photo: Maria Saporta)

The Chamber built its headquarters in two phases. The original building was designed by Atlanta architect Mack Scogin in 1985 (at the time, the location less than desirable – read my previous column).

Once Atlanta won the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the decision was made to expand the Chamber building and create a roof-top terrace as well as grander meeting spaces – including the Rotunda overlooking the park. Atlanta architect Mike Sizemore designed the expanded Chamber building.

Both had strong feelings about the Chamber’s plans.

“I don’t think the building is precious, but I do think the site is,” Scogin said. “I would tear it down and start all over…. I think it would be a shame to give up that location. It really could be a gateway – something that’s about the future of Atlanta. There is something about the symbol of a building – bricks and mortar – that says something about the establishment of a place and an organization. Atlanta needs buildings that identify the character of the city.”

Sizemore felt the existing building should be preserved, arguing that it is fully functional and works well as place for the Chamber to showcase the city.

When he got involved with the design in the mid-1990s, the idea was that the Chamber needed a high profile building because it represented the stature of the Atlanta business community.

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Another view of earlier concept of how a new Chamber building could open up vistas on the park (Special: GWCC)

“If I were at the Chamber, I would be concerned with a drop in public status of the institution if they were to give up this iconic, dramatic location for space in a typical office building,” Sizemore said. “In addition they would give up the roof deck, which has been very popular.

The idea of trying to align the College Football Hall of Fame to be the predominant axis or icon replacing the Metro Atlanta Chamber will also say that we think college football is more important to the City of Atlanta than the Atlanta business community. Is that the message we want to give to the world?”

Mick Fleming, president of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, said many large metro chambers operate out of lease office space instead of their own buildings.

When the Atlanta Chamber building was first developed, Fleming said it was “courageous and forward looking – and indeed lucky” with the subsequent winning of the Olympics and the development of the park.

“Thirty years later, the building may not fit the Chamber’s goals and needs, or those of the businesses it serves.  And that’s okay,” Fleming said. “The nostalgic comment from a 4th of July fireworks spectator was a nice touch, but it has little to do with whether the Chamber owns its building. Rented, or owned, the Chamber may have a view of the show from its corner office or rooftop.”

Atlanta chamber rooftop view

A view of Atlanta from the rooftop of the Metro Atlanta Chamber (Photo: Maria Saporta)

Whether the Chamber sells its building depends on whether the GWCC Authority will be able to raise the money to enhance the park and buy that property.

“It’s way premature for us to say where the money is going to come from,” said Tim Lowe, former chairman of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority who serves as chair of its development committee.If the Chamber building were to be acquired, it opens up opportunities to provide more vistas into the park.”

Lowe said the GWCC wants to bring back the sparkle that the park had when it opened in 1996.

Sam Williams, past president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the building has been valuable to the business community as a focal point for the city’s leaders.

“Since I retired, I haven’t been involved in the process,” Williams said. “I can only assume that Hala and the CEOs on the board have considered all the alternatives. The new leadership has to deal with those issues – not someone who has just retired.”

Gerald Bartels, former president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber who led the effort to build and then expand the building, questioned the decision to sell.

“The whole idea of the Chamber owning its own building is number one – visibility, and number two – economics,” Bartels said. “Nonprofits don’t get a deduction for rent so if you own your own building, at the end of 20 years, you have equity in it… If I were president, I would argue that we should preserve the building at that location. But I’m not the president.”

Then he added that he hoped that for the Chamber’s sake, that they would do an economic analysis of whether to own its building or pay rent, which is always escalating.

original chamber

A photo of how the original Chamber building looked (Scogins design) before the expansion

Bartels did build Chamber buildings in Jacksonville, Fla. and Greenville, S.C. He said hundreds of chambers own their own buildings, including those in the large Georgia cities of Macon and Columbus as well as the chambers in Gwinnett County and Cobb County.

“I have always believed in the Chamber having its own stand alone, highly visible strategic location – a place that the members and the community could see, touch and feel,” Bartels said. “I thought a building projected a sense of power. I wanted to send a message that here is where many of the big decisions affecting the community are made. I wanted the members to feel a sense of pride.  Visibility and accessibility helps builds a brand.  It is harder to achieve those objectives if you are lost in a high-rise building somewhere.”

Bartels acknowledged that he does feel sentimental about the prospect of the building being sold.

“The Chamber will never again have such a landmark location,” Bartels said. “There is no metro Chamber in the nation that has a more visible location.”

GWCC officials, who do not comment about ongoing real estate negotiations, did propose other options to the Chamber – including building a new facility across from the Georgia Aquarium on the site of the park’s current maintenance and administration facility.

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Map of Centennial Olympic Park and surrounding attractions (Source: Curbed Atlanta)

One idea would be to build a new Chamber building to include an Olympic-related attraction to highlight the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. An exhibit currently at the Atlanta History Center could be based right on the park where it would be more accessible to the public.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber has tremendous legacy – offering enlightened leadership during turbulent times – that helped steer the city and state to becoming the metropolis it is today.

Moddelmog said that history is vital as the Chamber ponders its future.

“We can still be a hub in a building and still honor our past,” she said. “We will always honor our past. We have a brand but our brand is not nearly as important as the brand of Atlanta.”

Note to readers: This is the second in a two-part series about the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the future of its building. To read part one, please click here.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

4 replies
  1. John R Naugle says:

    Greetings from Atlanta: City of Peace. Hello Ms. Saporta, your article was very inspiring. Since you know many key city leaders, particularly Hala Moddelmog – president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, will you please convey the interests from “Atlanta: City of Peace” (our organization) to partner with them in the development of, what could easily become, their new and future headquarters?

    What IF their current site, overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, became the future site of “The Global Peace Tower” (Planet Earth’s Architectural Icon for the Peace Millennium)? [Link listed below]. Also, what IF the Metro Atlanta Chamber became the first official tenant through assisting us with engaging “Captain Planet” (a leading nominee for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize) to be Developer-of-Record and to provide the name for this new, soon to be internationally heralded, peace project?

    Sadly, our organization is currently without professionals who know about fundraising, so we’re unfunded and without pros who can create compelling proposals to reach globally-respected leaders like Ted Turner. We invite Ms. Moddelmog and the Metro Atlanta Chamber to help us engage “TED” and to have him develop and provide THIS official name for our project:

    “Turner’s Global Peace Tower”

    Tragically, “The TED” Stadium will soon be torn down and replaced! “Turner’s Global Peace Tower” is a GREAT replacement and way for generations of the future to remember and celebrate ‘TED’, one of Atlanta’s most internationally-respected citizens. It would be GREAT if ‘Ted’ became key in amplifying Atlanta’s skyline (see our vision in the image below)! Ted’s peace and service legacy is more than formidable which is why I’m predicting he will be selected as the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (announced in October).

    Additionally, if any city on Earth needs to be providing a dynamic example for the new era of transformation that’s now developing worldwide, then Atlanta does. Dr. King’s birthplace and “Turner’s Global Peace Tower” can blossom to inspire many, Many, MANY citizens, corporations, nonprofits, cities, and states from around the world. “Turner’s Global Peace Tower” can be even be seen as a huge exclamation point for our global family to indirectly proclaim… “WE object to all of the escalating horrible acts of violence being regularly featured through national news. Like Dr. King, WE the citizens of Atlanta, can grow in finding solutions to – what he defined as – The 3-Evils: Poverty, Racism and Violence, and our great city can export those solutions to our entire global family.”

    Ms. Saporta, our organization has always had Dr. King’s “Fierce Urgency of Now” to build inspiring projects like: “Turner’s Global Peace Tower”, but we have unfortunately lacked the funding, staff and wherewithal to scale up. Will you help us to invite Ms. Moddelmog and the Metro Atlanta Chamber to help us engage “TED” so that he will develop “Turner’s Global Peace Tower”?

    From the most published book of human history we are reminded about the importance of creating dynamic solutions, PLUS we are warned of the repercussions of failing. From Proverbs, one may find this passage:

    “Without vision, the people perish!”

    A more direct proclamation by Dr. King, one of the most globally-respected leaders of human history, is this emphatically clear message of why urgency is imperative. He once proclaimed:

    “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”

    In closing, here’s the link for the future site of (herein proposed) the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s new headquarters. WE HAVE A DREAM!

    “The Global Peace Tower (GPT)”
    http://www.globalpeacetower.com

    We welcome everyone’s help to engage “TED” so it may be renamed:
    “Turner’s Global Peace Tower”Report

    Reply
  2. Carlotta Ungaro says:

    The first time I saw the Atlanta Chamber building was in 1989 on my way to work.  TI was young and not yet set on my career path so make ends meet, I had four jobs. One was as a waitress in the VIP floor section for the Atlanta Hawks.  I remember sitting at the light on Marietta Street wondering why the Chamber of Commerce building was in such a ratty part of of town. I knew that Chambers were important and there were all these bad-looking buildings around.  My next encounter with the Atlanta Chamber building was for a job interview in 2000.  What a difference in the area. The shabby warehouses were gone replaced with beautiful Centennial Olympic Park.  I got the job and spent six great years at the Atlanta Chamber until I decided it was time to move up and run a Chamber myself.

    I have ran three Chambers.  The first we owned and sold our building to rent space from the city.  The second chamber I managed owned its own building and my current Chamber has a lease arrangement.  All three of these Chambers are downtown in core business districts. As the realtors say, its all about location, location, location and that has been the most important issue in every decision about buying or renting.  The Atlanta Chamber’s existing location and visibility are unmatched. But on the other hand, it sure is nice to call the landlord when the roof is leaking instead of having to deal with it yourself. Having the park right there is an amazing amenity but it did have one downside for me. I got to where I cringed every time I heard Neil Diamond singing “Coming to America” multiple times a day in Centennial Olympic Park Fountain Show!.

    I can wax nostalgic about game-changer meetings I had the honor of attending there as well as the fun concerts enjoyed from the comfort of the rooftop. What is most important though is what made the Atlanta Chamber great then, as it does now…the amazing team of people working there to make Metro Atlanta a better place. These people, along with the volunteers, are the real Chamber and wherever they are, they will make sure the impact of the Chamber remains the same.   235 Andrew Young International Blvd. was and still is a great location and the emotional side of me wants the Chamber to stay there.  Hala and the board, I don’t envy you having to make this decision!

    Carlotta UngaroReport

    Reply
  3. mariasaporta says:

    Carlotta Ungaro Thank you so much for writing such a thoughtful comment.  You definitely bring a great perspective.  What I really wanted to do with the column was share different points of view and stimulate greater thought as we move forward with making this decision. Hope you’re well.Report

    Reply
  4. billtoddgt says:

    I vividly recall the late Larry Gellerstedt, Jr. complaining in the early ’90’s that he was against moving the Chamber to its current location. He thought that it was “too far away from downtown.”

    Of course, this was way back when the Commerce Club on Broad Street was the center of civic life in Atlanta. At the risk of sounding like an old geezer, man, I sure miss those days.

    Bill ToddReport

    Reply

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