Developers mum about taxpayer money for $2B Forsyth arena

Team behind Gathering at South Forsyth also didn’t discuss prospects for NHL hockey in county hearing
Commissioners from left to right; Todd Levent, Alfred John, Laura Semanson, and Cindy Jones Mills listens to a presentation from Nelson Worldwide as they discuss plans for The Gathering at South Forsyth, a $2 billion project, at the Forsyth County Commissioners’ work session, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Cumming, Ga. The project includes an 18,000-plus seat arena. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Commissioners from left to right; Todd Levent, Alfred John, Laura Semanson, and Cindy Jones Mills listens to a presentation from Nelson Worldwide as they discuss plans for The Gathering at South Forsyth, a $2 billion project, at the Forsyth County Commissioners’ work session, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Cumming, Ga. The project includes an 18,000-plus seat arena. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

An ambitious plan for a $2 billion arena and entertainment district in Forsyth County ignited the imaginations of hockey fans salivating about a return of the NHL to metro Atlanta. And it set off concerns from some residents about traffic and what taxpayers might be asked to spend to help finance the glitzy dream.

But residents and county commissioners got few answers Tuesday in the first public hearing on the Gathering at South Forsyth project.

Hockey wasn’t mentioned once in the nearly hourlong-presentation, though the development team insisted the 18,000-plus seat arena can be sustained without an anchor tenant.

The county’s leaders weren’t focused on sports either.

“We need to know exactly what’s coming,” Commissioner Todd Levent said, pushing the developers for financial details. “Otherwise, we’ll be played for fools.”

Commissioner Todd Levent asks questions to representative from Nelson Worldwide as they discuss plans for The Gathering at South Forsyth, a $2 billion project, at the Forsyth County Commissioners’ work session, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Cumming, Ga. The project includes an 18,000-plus seat arena. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Despite repeated questions, no one on the development team was able to explicitly say whether they would ask for public funding. Developers of most sports arenas and stadiums seek public support, though economists generally say the return on taxpayer dollars isn’t as great as supporters promise.

“I’m not going to support this in terms of us writing a big fat check,” said Commissioner Laura Semanson, who was among two county leaders to endorse the project’s vision when it was announced last week. Still, she said commissioners need to seriously consider this pitch, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime project.”

Commissioners voted 4-0 during Tuesday’s work session to hear the zoning request at their next meeting May 9. It will be the first scheduled chance the public will get to give feedback.

This is a rendering of a proposed mixed-use development in south Forsyth County.

Credit: The Gathering at South Forsyth

icon to expand image

Credit: The Gathering at South Forsyth

Lifelong north Forsyth resident Andy Coleman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the thought of a massive attraction is exciting and one he’d likely use if built. But he’s worried local leaders will oversell its economic impacts to justify investing public funds into the private development.

“I keep hearing sales pitches that these large developments are going to help our tax base, but I keep seeing my taxes increased,” he said. “It feels like sleight of hand.”

Facebook posts in Forsyth neighborhood groups have amassed hundreds of comments about the arena project and sparked lengthy threads debating the merits of public transportation and road infrastructure. The potential incorporation of professional hockey also elicited strong emotions, from those thrilled at the potential to those questioning how a NHL franchise can survive when two others flamed out in Atlanta.

In one thread, resident Allen Griffin quipped, “Dumbest. Idea. Ever.”

“I think it would be awesome,” replied another resident, Adam Coleman.

Fast-growing Forsyth

Forsyth has about 267,000 residents and is one of the fastest-growing counties in Georgia and the nation, with its population growing by nearly 50% from 2010 to 2020.

Gathering backers have touted growth in Forsyth and nearby northern suburbs as the demand driver for a huge arena.

On Tuesday, the project’s development team showed off dozens of new renderings, site plans and detailed their vision. A three-minute video also teased to the type of events they expect the arena to attract — from high school graduations to Cirque du Soleil performances. He also cited eSports, Broadway shows, Disney on Ice and UFC events as potential draws.

This is a rendering of a proposed mixed-use development in south Forsyth County.

Credit: The Gathering at South Forsyth

icon to expand image

Credit: The Gathering at South Forsyth

“The arena that we’ve been talking about is kind of the jewel of this development,” said Tone Frisina, a partner at SCI Architects, the project’s design firm. “This is really a world-class building that can be fully flexible, having 100 events a year and can really compete and provide the destination location here in North Georgia.”

The arena is expected to anchor the Gathering project, an 84-acre development expected to include 2,400 apartments, shops, restaurants, offices and 500 hotel rooms. Vernon Krause, the CEO of Krause Auto Group and the visionary behind the Gathering project, was not present Tuesday.

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