The newest executive for the proposed $2 billion arena and entertainment district known as the Gathering at South Forsyth made one thing clear this week in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — they want an NHL team.

Frank Ferrara, the Gathering’s new senior project executive, said he’ll pull out all of the stops to get Georgia back into pro hockey contention. Where the Atlanta Flames and Thrashers failed downtown, Ferrara said the Gathering team thinks it can build an 18,000-plus seat suburban arena, surrounded by hotels, offices, restaurants, shops and apartments, that could woo an expansion team, should that day come.

“It’s easy to say that no city has gotten a third chance, but the circumstances are not the same,” Ferrara told the AJC. “... If and when (the NHL) decides to expand, we will have a place that’s ready for them.”

The build-it-and-they-will-come vision for a pro hockey arena 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta, coupled with an Atlanta Braves-style live-work-play district immediately made waves when it was first pitched in April.

Questions have swirled around the project’s viability, location and whether Forsyth residents could be asked to foot some of the project’s bills. Developers of most sports arenas and stadiums seek public support, though economists generally say the return on taxpayer dollars isn’t as great as promised.

The Gathering team so far has declined to say whether they will seek taxpayer assistance, and if so, what the public tab will be — a potential sticking point for one of the most conservative counties in metro Atlanta. Though the development team has talked about the return of pro hockey, they’ve at times downplayed it, focusing instead on creating a place in Forsyth large enough to hold concerts, high school graduations and other community events.

Vernon Krause, CEO of dealership chain Krause Auto Group, is the man behind the Gathering project, but his representatives have declined multiple requests for interviews.

Chasing the puck

Forsyth Commissioner Laura Semanson, who represents the district surrounding the Gathering site off Union Hill Road and Ga. 400, said a pro hockey team close to home would be exciting for residents who want to avoid the trek downtown or to Cobb County for sporting events.

“There’s always going to be people who are opposed to any kind of change, but I think largely the community is looking for that aspect of it,” she said of an NHL franchise. “And I know the county is as well.”

She said that the county is discussing potential public-private partnerships, such as creating a new government authority for the Gathering or incorporating public facilities.

Ferrara was the NFL’s finance director for two decades and led Arizona State University’s campaign to build Mullett Arena, a 5,000-seat venue that was recently the temporary home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.

In May, voters in a Phoenix suburb rejected a proposal to use taxpayer funds to help finance a new permanent home for the Coyotes. That project also would have had an adjoining entertainment district.

Ferrara, who relocated to Alpharetta for his new gig, said he thinks the Gathering has better odds of landing a yet-to-be-announced expansion team rather than relocating an existing franchise. The NHL’s 32 teams are evenly divided between the eastern and western U.S. and Canada. Ferrara said the Coyotes “are in the west, so I don’t see them or any other team coming east.”

A NHL spokesperson declined to comment about the potential for a league expansion, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recently said, “We don’t have expansion on the agenda right now.”

“It’s not something we’re focused on, certainly in the short term,” he continued.

Focus on finances

The Gathering proposal includes 1,800 apartments, 1 million square feet of new offices, restaurants, shops, a fire station, a community center and up to 500 hotel rooms.

The county and its economic development arm, Forward Forsyth, are both developing economic impact studies to estimate the Gathering’s tax generation capabilities. Alex Warner, Forward Forsyth’s vice president of economic development, said he expects his organization’s study to be complete within the next few weeks, while the county’s study with Ernst & Young will be done later this year.

Forward Forsyth’s study will review potential future property tax revenue, so that if there is a discussion about public support, he said, “we’ll know where we can start a negotiation.”

“It is not the county’s responsibility to make sure that this project can find the capital in order to fund it,” Warner added. “If there would be any participation on our side, it would be an incentive to get the project to the finish line. It would not be an incentive to make the project financially viable.”

Ferrara worked on Arizona State’s arena with Stafford Sports and SCI Architects, two members of the Gathering’s development team. He said NHL arenas need team clubhouses, weight rooms, suites for cash-flush fans and many other bells and whistles.

He expects the Gathering’s NHL chances to become clearer once the project begins construction.

“It’s hard for a team to be awarded before shovels are in the ground,” he said. “For a league to give support, you have to get building and you have to... make sure that this arena is sustainable financially without an anchor tenant.”

The Gathering arena would face stiff competition for concerts and other events from similarly sized State Farm Arena and the 13,000-seat Gas South Arena in Gwinnett County.

Semanson said she anticipates the Atlanta Regional Commission will soon release results of a Development of Regional Impact study, which is an infrastructure analysis required for gigantic projects. Once that is complete, the Gathering team will be able to file a rezoning request. The county would also need to tweak its codes to allow for the proposed residential density.

“We’re right on the precipice of a lot of information rolling in,” she said.