Atlanta’s nightlife has a problem: It’s skimpy.
At least that’s the message from a state senator who also heads the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, 25 miles deep into the ‘burbs.
“There’s not a lot to do here” at night, State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, told me. And he says it’s limiting our downtown Atlanta convention business.
My gut reaction to this blasphemous statement was denial.
First, President Trump rips on Atlanta and now one of our own does, too?
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But is Beach right? What about if you squint your eyes, put on blinders to a bunch of stuff, pretend you’re an out of town conventioneer and define Atlanta as only a very few square blocks?
Beach has a reason to push this point. He wants to allow casinos in Georgia, a questionable idea state legislators are considering again this winter.
Beach, who prefers the term “destination resorts,” cites several benefits for getting in bed with gambling: more tax money for education, jobs, etc. But he also stressed to me that it will help Atlanta’s feeble nightlife.
Atlanta has long been one of the nation’s top convention cities. The metro area attracted 51 million annual visitors at last count, a record for us, according to local boosters. But Beach cautioned that some conventioneers are turned off by a shortage of nightlife locally.
“We compete with New Orleans, Nashville, Las Vegas, Chicago,” he said. All of those places have big-time entertainment while here “we don’t really have anything here after the aquarium closes.”
He particularly said there aren’t enough concerts, though downtown’s Philips Arena has the 13th most ticket sales of any U.S. arena and nearby is The Tabernacle and the Fox Theatre (fifth in the world for theater ticket sales, according to Pollstar). A big casino complex, he said, will have concerts every night of the week, which he said Atlanta doesn’t have.
Not really. I checked at the casino supporters highlight as an example for Atlanta. The theater at the new MGM National Harbor near Washington D.C. has about three February shows and five in March. That’s way less than “every night.”
“There’s shows every night in Atlanta pretty much,” said promoter Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta. “It is considered one of the best music markets in the country and there’s a lot to do.”
A bazillion things
Conlon has a vested interest to say good things about our city.
But it does seems like there are a bazillion things going on here at night. Alongside this column I’ve included a partial list of night-time concerts, games and happenings going on in metro Atlanta this month. It goes on forever.
Last year, I asked the general manager of the minor league Gwinnett Braves why few people attend the team’s games, which are often at night. He pointed in part to metro Atlantans having too many other fun things to do.
“If there’s a problem with nightlife, I am missing it,” said Doug Landau, an owner of Neighbor’s Pub and the Dark Horse Tavern in Atlanta.
So what is Beach talking about?
“I would say it is creative lobbying on his part,” Landau said.
That’s likely. But maybe a kernel of reality is lurking in there, too.
The party magnet of Buckhead, once a go-to-spot for some conventioneers, got hammered when bars were demolished to make way for fancy shops, apartments and offices.
There are still plenty of bars in Buckhead. And in recent years new hot spots have bloomed from Midtown to the Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park, Howell Mill and East Atlanta Village.
But I suspect that conventioneers don’t have time or energy to sort that all out. Maybe they want an easier fix, right outside the doors of their downtown Atlanta hotels.
There are downtown bars, of course. More than I remember back in the day. But “we are not over-saturated with offerings there,” said William Pate, the CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The ACVB’s surveys of meeting planners show good to decent ratings. But nightlife and shopping, while a bit better than average, consistently rate as the lowest of the parameters the ACVB shared with me.
Pate suspects that meeting planners want interesting offerings all along downtown streets near convention hotels. But to support that kind of business, Atlanta needs to make good on its long-running dream to have a lot more people living downtown, Pate said.
‘An issue’ for some
Matt Dykstra, a senior vice president of ConferenceDirect which works with meeting planners, told me Atlanta’s nightlife is “an issue” for some clients.
“Atlanta doesn’t really have a downtown entertainment district that a lot of its competitors have, or at least it isn’t marketed like that,” he said.
One client planning for meetings with up to 14,000 people has twice passed on Atlanta in part because of the issue, Dykstra said. Instead, they booked Indianapolis and Minneapolis.
Contemplate that: We were out-partied by Indianapolis, a city nicknamed “Naptown.”
But none of that means casinos are a good answer for Atlanta and its conventioneers.
Pate said the ACVB would market a casino to visitors, if one came here, but he predicts gaming itself wouldn’t significantly increase visits or conventions because so many other places already have casinos.
Dykstra, of ConferenceDirect, told me meeting planners generally aren’t drawn by casinos and that some event organizers will steer clear of a place like Vegas (a big convention town) specifically because of the gambling.
“I have to chuckle about the idea,” said A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress. (Chuckling sounds like the ultimate dis, doesn’t it?)
The downtown booster group has yet to take a stance on casinos but it published an analysis questioning some purported benefits, like the idea that casinos would increase tourism.
Which is all the more reason to question what kind of a party animal we’d really be getting with casinos.