Consultants pitch DeKalb convention center near PDK, Buford Highway

A rendering of a proposed DeKalb County convention center near DeKalb-Peachtree Airport along Buford Highway. SCREENSHOT

Combined ShapeCaption
A rendering of a proposed DeKalb County convention center near DeKalb-Peachtree Airport along Buford Highway. SCREENSHOT

A newly released consultants’ report suggests DeKalb County build a convention center near DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and the Buford Highway corridor.

DeKalb is the largest metro Atlanta county without its own convention and civic center, and local officials — citing the potential revenue and status lost from not having such a facility — have discussed the idea for decades.

Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson helped relaunch the conversation last June, when she allocated $100,000 of her discretionary county funds to hire a consultant to conduct a new market analysis and feasibility study.

That study, led by national firm C.H. Johnson Consulting with an assist from Atlanta-based TVS Design, was presented to the full Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

It found the feasibility and market demand for such a project “favorable,” and envisioned a campus with a 50,000-square-foot multipurpose hall; another 25,000-square-foot ballroom; 14,000 square feet of meeting rooms; and a 250-seat theater.

General estimates presented Tuesday put the cost of all that around $140 million. The facility would only become profitable in its sixth year, according to projections.

Future phases could include a hotel and other mixed-use developments, including the tie-in of an “aviation museum” and a “cultural center.”

Those offerings would be an attempt to integrate the project into the site that consultants selected as most desirable: a piece of property between the eastern end of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and Buford Highway, the epicenter of Atlanta’s multicultural and immigrant communities.

“It’s no longer acceptable to build a convention center,” Cochran-Johnson said. “One must create an experience.”

The commissioner said multiple times Tuesday that the consultants’ report followed “the science and the desire” for such a facility and expressed support for its findings. But she also made clear that the presentation was meant as a starting point for discussions.

Several colleagues started that conversation with concerns.

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, noting that the consulting firms were represented Tuesday entirely by white men, raised questions about the diversity of input involved in the study. Officials said they interviewed or included in focus groups a “broad spectrum” of community, business and cultural leaders, as well as scores of meeting and event planners from around metro Atlanta.

“We were very comprehensive and thoughtful in our outreach,” Ryan Johnson, a principal with the consulting firm, said.

Commissioner Davis Johnson and colleague Ted Terry also questioned the thinking behind building a convention center in northern DeKalb, the traditionally whiter, more affluent end of the county.

Davis Johnson said she predicted that’s where such a proposal would land last year because she “knew what life was in DeKalb.” Terry said he understood the study was based largely on “existing market conditions” and on input from people already working in the convention and event arenas.

But that could lead to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, he said.

“If there’s already that imbalance, than it just further skews it,” Terry said, pushing for a more “aspirational” location like Memorial Drive.

A total of nine sites were evaluated, according to the study, and a majority of them were in the southern end of the county. But only one, South DeKalb Mall, was scored in the top five.

The Assembly site at the former General Motors plant in Doraville was actually the highest scorer among all sites, including the PDK location. But it was later determined to be “unavailable,” officials said — presumably because NBCUniversal recently announced plans to operate a huge new film studio there.

Exact next steps for a potential DeKalb County convention center were not clear, and whatever happens will not be quick. The consultants’ suggestions are in no way binding and, among many other things, a funding source or sources would have to be identified.

For the time being, county commissioners will continue discussions in committee meetings.


SITES EVALUATED FOR A POTENTIAL DEKALB COUNTY CONVENTION CENTER

  • Kensington MARTA station
  • Memorial Drive
  • North DeKalb Mall
  • Tucker-Northlake
  • DeKalb-Peachtree Airport
  • Doraville
  • South DeKalb Mall
  • Stonecrest
  • I-20 corridor

*Study conducted by C.H. Johnson Consulting