An 18,000-plus seat arena. Professional hockey. Thousands of apartments and an office and entertainment district. All in Forsyth County?

A car dealership magnate’s dreams for a $2 billion project along Ga. 400, 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta, catapulted Forsyth County into the big league sports discussion. Dubbed the Gathering at South Forsyth, the project would rank among metro Atlanta’s largest and most expensive developments. The Monday announcement immediately garnered mixed reactions.

Little is known about how it’ll be paid for or how much taxpayers might be asked to contribute. Backers argue a venue rivaling the size of State Farm Arena could turn a profit in Atlanta’s less populous, but wealthy, northern suburbs even without an NHL team.

But the mammoth project’s flashy renderings gave hockey fans hope for a hat trick — that Atlanta could land a third NHL franchise when two previous attempts crashed and burned.

Project scope

The Gathering site is 101 acres along Ronald Reagan Boulevard and Union Hill Road near the Fulton County line and Alpharetta.

A Development of Regional Impact filing shows developers want 2,400 residential units, 1 million square feet of office space, 600,000 square feet of retail space and up to 500 hotel rooms. A fire station and 90,000-square-foot community center and ice rink are also featured in the pitch.

A site map obtained Thursday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request shows the proposed development features a linear park, a grocery store and a connection to the Big Creek Greenway.

Credit: Forsyth County

Credit: Forsyth County

Developers propose two phases, with the first including one hotel, 350 apartments, the arena and community center. The second phase will include 100 townhomes, another hotel, 2,050 apartments and all of the retail and office space.

Carl Hirsh, a managing partner with consulting firm Stafford Sports and a development team member for the Gathering, said they “welcome the county and community input,” but one aspect is set in stone.

“The arena is something that we’re not really flexible on,” he said.

Drop the puck

Is an NHL team at play? That’s not clear.

An ownership group would either have to relocate a team to metro Atlanta or win an expansion franchise. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in March that expansion is not “on the agenda right now. It’s not something we’re focused on, certainly in the short-term.”

If relocation is the only option, all eyes turn to Arizona. The Coyotes went through bankruptcy in 2009. The team is trying to get Phoenix suburb Tempe to provide $200 million in public funding to help create a $2.1 billion arena and entertainment district. A May 16 referendum will decide the plan’s fate and could determine whether the team is in the market for a new location.

When the Thrashers left for Canada after the 2011 season, it left metro Atlanta as one of the largest North American markets without an NHL franchise. But Atlanta has already had two cracks at NHL hockey — between the departed Thrashers and Flames.

Atlanta would have to compete with the likes of Salt Lake City, which has never had a professional hockey team, and Houston and Quebec City, Canada — which had professional teams leave their cities in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively. No city has ever gotten a third chance at an NHL franchise.

Judith Grant Long, a sports management professor at the University of Michigan, said the Gathering’s location away from Atlanta’s city center would buck current trends.

“What we’re seeing across major league arenas is really more of a movement toward downtowns as opposed to moving outward toward the suburbs,” she said. But there have been outliers, including the Braves, the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers and a proposed Chicago Bears stadium in the Windy City’s suburbs.



Taxpayer funding?

Most pro sports teams seek public money to help finance their arenas, despite the general consensus among economists that such taxpayer support isn’t worth it.

The Braves received $300 million from Cobb County in exchange for what’s now Truist Park and the huge Battery district. Arthur Blank got $200 million upfront from Atlanta along with hundreds of millions more in future commitments of hotel/motel taxes for Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Gathering team hasn’t disclosed financing nor whether they will ask for taxpayer support. At least two Forsyth commissioners have endorsed the project, but the full commission’s view on public financing isn’t known. Forsyth is one of metro Atlanta’s most conservative counties, once a hotbed for anti-tax tea party protests.

In a written statement, Commissioner Laura Semanson told the AJC she backs the Gathering, but she’s not supportive of new taxes to fund the complex.

“At this stage, the developers have not asked for any county funding for the proposed project,” she said. “With it being so early in the proposed plans, and with no ask at this time for support, no new taxes are expected nor committed.”

Forsyth’s population and tax digest is also much smaller than that of Cobb or Atlanta, meaning it has fewer resources from which to pull to support a huge arena.

Competing arenas

Hirsh said the arena will target concerts, collegiate sports, graduations and other events, which he said diminishes the need for a anchor tenant like a pro hockey team — although he’d welcome one.

It will face competition from nearby Gas South Arena in Gwinnett County and Ameris Bank Amphitheater in north Fulton. Hirsh argued that won’t be a problem.

“When you look at the growth that is happening north of Atlanta and you look at the wealth in Forsyth County, Alpharetta and that whole area, it makes perfect sense that this could be a great spot for an entertainment hub,” he said.

Bob Boland, a sports law professor at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, said there is demand for a new arena in that area, but he said it might be difficult to justify the size without the guaranteed flocks of sports fans.

“It really makes a huge difference if it encompasses the NHL team or not,” he said.

Partners and public feedback

Vernon Krause, the owner of 18 auto dealerships across four Southern states, is the top named partner in the deal so far. He declined multiple interview requests.

Rumors about NHL hockey have swirled around the Alpharetta area for months, but the Gathering announcement caught many off-guard.

“There are so many unknowns about this project currently, but we will follow this closely to see how it progresses,” said Phil Mays, a partner at RocaPoint Partners, which developed the nearby bustling Halcyon live-work-play community.



Tim Perry is a managing partner at North American Properties, one of the developers of Avalon in Alpharetta. He said the Alpharetta and south Forsyth area is booming. And while he said there is demand for hockey in Atlanta, he said it’s a risk to base a team far from the urban core and with an unproven franchise.

“It’s a big bet when you have an anchor like the Atlanta Braves that you know,” he said of moving the MLB team to the suburbs. “... It’s a really, really big bet when you ask how you’re going to pay for an arena that may or may not have a professional team.”

The Forsyth commission will discuss the project for the first time during a 2 p.m. work session Tuesday.

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