ATLANTA — The construction caught many business owners and residents off guard.
Granted, it’s hard to travel through downtown Atlanta without running into something new — condos going up here, an office building or hotel being built there. As Tom Wolfe captured in his book A Man in Full, commercial real estate is as much a part of the Atlanta’s culture as sweet tea and streets named Peachtree. But the cranes and catch fences that popped up suddenly between the Omni Hotel and the World Congress Center caused a lot of locals to stop and scratch their heads, especially when they read that signs that this was the future site of the College Football Hall of Fame.
“We tried to be low-key until the last minute when we knew we had everything lined up and that we were on schedule for our (Aug. 2014) opening,” said John Stephenson, president of Atlanta Hall Management, the entity responsible for building and operating Atlanta’s newest downtown attraction. “We had a lot of moving parts and didn’t want to come out too big too soon.”
The process for bringing the College Football Hall of Fame to Atlanta has been ongoing for four years, but neither the Atlanta Hall Management team nor the National Football Foundation that owns the Hall, wanted to say much about it until Wednesday when they held a joint luncheon at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
The Hall isn’t new. In fact, the NFF was founded in 1947 by General Douglas MacArthur, coach Red Blaik, who went 121-32 while coaching at Army, and legendary sports writer Grantland Rice and the Hall of Fame was created in 1951. The organization has been headquartered in New York until recently when it moved to Dallas, while the Hall of Fame has been in Ohio and, most recently, South Bend, Ind. where it underperformed, attracting half the annual visitors originally projected.
“If you haven’t been to South Bend, it is very different than Notre Dame,” said current NFF president Steve Hatchell on Wednesday. “When Atlanta came to us and said, ‘If we build you a Hall of Fame, will you come?’ our guys said, ‘It’s time to move,’ because we have a lot of initiatives we want to get done in football. … We needed a place that said, ‘This (Hall of Fame) is something special.’”
Today it is gravel, rebar and concrete trucks, but over the course of the next year the former parking lot will transform into a $66 million attraction. In order for the economics to work, the new Hall will need 500,000 visitors a year at a retail ticket price of $17.50 and an average per-person yield (with discounts and packages) of $9.50. In South Bend, the Hall averaged 80,000 visitors a year.
But those who do come to the Atlanta-based Hall will be treated to one of the most elaborate, state-of-the-art attractions in all of football, complete with interactive displays, a 40-yard football field in the middle of the building, and rare memorabilia like the only surviving jersey worn by Red Grange and the trombone that got trampled during the 1982 California-Stanford game when Cal scored with the band on the field.
“The Hall of Fame becomes critical because you have to recognize the past,” Hatchell said. “There are roughly 4.8 million guys who have played college football since it started in 1869. We have roughly 920 players in the Hall of Fame and roughly 200 coaches. That’s a small fraction, so it’s a big deal to get in. … This Hall of Fame will be a place worthy of that (accomplishment).”
It also has to be, in Stephenson’s words, “sustainable,” which is the trick for any downtown attraction. Organizers are relying on crossover from tourists visiting the World of Coke and the Georgia Aquarium, both of which average over a million visitors annually, plus traffic from sporting events at Philips Arena and the Georgia Dome.
“You can have (the Hall of Fame) anywhere,” Hatchell said. “But if people don’t come, you have a big building that just sits empty. And nobody wants that.”