With Super Bowl 53 just days away, downtown Atlanta has become one giant tailgate.
The Georgia World Congress Center, next to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is home through Feb. 2 to the Super Bowl Experience Driven by Hyundai, 800,000 square feet space of games, exhibits, music, autograph sessions and more. Fans can admire the Vince Lombardi Trophy, go through mock drafts, hang out in a simulated NFL locker room or test their football skills - have you kicked a 30-yard field goal lately?
MORE: Watch the singing security guard welcome visitors to Atlanta
Across the street, Centennial Olympic Park this week is hosting concerts organized by Atlanta-based producer Jermaine Dupri and other events. Food trucks are ready for hungry crowds and sponsors have their sleekest merch on display. Want to check out Ford's pickup trucks or a replica of the NASA moon rover? It's all there.
“It’s amazing to see all the different things going on,” said Barbara Robinson, who was downtown with her friends Karen Boyd and Liz Taylor over the weekend. Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Falcon fan till I die,” wore a Falcons T-shirt to check out all the pregame buzz and is bummed her team won’t be playing on Sunday.
“At least the Saints are not,” she said. “The Saints will not win in my house!”
Many Saints fans — including whoever is funding billboards around town protesting the late-in-the-game, undebatably blown call they blame for sending the L.A. Rams our way instead, are still smarting their guys aren't headed here.
“I sat front row for the Saints debacle, and I am still going to the Super Bowl,” said prominent Atlanta attorney Randall Kessler, who says he’ll wear a black T-shirt emblazoned with “LIII*” in gold.
Boyd is focused on the positives, and hopes visitors in town for the Super Bowl will enjoy their stay (no snow, no traffic calamities, she prays) and come back again in the future.
“I look at Atlanta as the gateway to the South,” she said. “This is great.”
Some visitors on Sunday were taking in downtown via the Atlanta Streetcar, newly wrapped with NFL designs. Others were clip-clopping around in horse-drawn carriages while others took in a bird’s-eye view courtesy of the Skyview Atlanta Ferris wheel, its cars bearing logos of different NFL teams.
The game – and the massive hoopla escorting it — are seen as something of a reward that the NFL provides to cities that support construction of new stadiums. And Atlanta’s public support was substantial — roughly $700 million worth.
The region’s boosters are betting that selection should mean – amidst the parties, games and fan entertainment – a higher profile for Atlanta, and Atlanta’s boosters are hoping to raise the city’s profile just a little more.
For visitors who wander just a little from the game-centric activities, there is the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, the King Center, or a commercially cultural touchstone like the World of Coca-Cola.
And then there are the economics — government officials and boosters said the region would reap a huge financial windfall from the injection of visitor and company spending.
Of course, there’s some dispute about how much that payoff will be.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber projected a $400 million benefit. A calculation by a Georgia State economist for the Super Bowl Host Committee put the figure at slightly less than half that.
Other sports economists say the real net impact is much smaller.
Economics were not the subject for Kasey Dean and Lillian Gochenouer, two of the thousands of volunteers for the Super Bowl. On Sunday, they were giving directions, answering questions and generally welcoming visitors.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Dean said.
Not far away, Linda Gauthier had a song in her heart — and in her voice — during her shifts with S.A.F.E. (Security, Athletic Facilities & Events) Management.
“I love this job!” she said, taking a break from serenading guests who rode up the escalator that she was charged with monitoring. “I am a people person.”
She made eye contact with each and every person who ascended to her floor while she belted out verses — an approach to crowd control that drew a smile at times from the otherwise no-nonsense faces of passing police.
“Oh, my God, this is my home city,” she said.
"I was born and raised here. For Atlanta to be doing this," she said, trailing off with an air of wonder in her voice. "I'm just glad to be part of the Super Bowl."