State budget woes keep old World of Coke empty

More than two years after the world's largest soft drink maker left it for newer digs, the old World of Coca-Cola remains empty.

The building, once one of the city's largest tourist draws with about 700,000 visitors annually, is now owned by the state, which hopes to turn it into a Georgia history museum.

But the recession has put those plans on hold, said Thomas Hills, Gov. Sonny Perdue's chief financial officer. Perdue targeted $15 million in his 2009 budget for rejuvenation of the site, including renovation of heating and air conditioning systems, electrical work and changes to the layout. That funding was pulled as the state cut spending to balance the budget.

"It was not time essential," Hills said of renovation plans.

World of Coca-Cola moved to a new building next to the Georgia Aquarium two years ago, aiming to attract 1 million annually.

Georgia is not alone in its museum budget woes. States across the nation have had to curtail hours, cut staff and even close museums because of lack of funding, said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums.

"It's almost universal right now," he said. "And yet attendance has never been stronger. Attendance seems to spike in tough times. We saw it after 9/11, and we're seeing it now."

Officials first began considering a state museum when Max Cleland was secretary of state in the early 1990s, Hills said. The state commissioned a study to look at possible locations around the capital building.

"We are one of the few states without a history museum," Hills said.

Officials determined that if Coca-Cola ever left its old spot the building could be a possibility, Hills said. The state bought the building for about $1 million.

But Mark Newton, director of the hotel, restaurant and tourism management program at Gwinnett Tech, said the site isn'tthe best location. Despite being just steps from Underground Atlanta, it lacks a critical mass of activities around it to pull visitors in. A $450 million plan to bring video lottery gambling, restaurants and a hotel to Underground could have pumped up interest, but that deal lacks momentum.

"It would be great if it was in walking distance of the Georgia Aquarium or the (new) World of Coke," said Newton. "I don't know if Underground is a big draw."

If the state museum becomes a reality, the building could house artifacts that are currently on the upper floors of the Capital, Hills said. It could also include collections from the state archive in Morrow in addition to traveling exhibits from around Georgia.

Meantime, the state building authority does routine maintenance on the old World of Coke building to make sure it still functions properly, said spokeswoman Katy Pando.

"An empty building is never the preferred situation," Pando said. "We know that the old World of Coke is in a great location . . . and for many years served as a catalyst for tourist traffic. We are hopeful that in the near future, the building will again attract thousands to the area."