John Duke is trying to stop an arena.
In College Park, where he lives, members of city council are planning a Tuesday groundbreaking for the $42 million facility, which is slated to be the home of the Atlanta Hawks' development team when it opens next year.
But Duke argues that the arena will cost the city more than it will gain. He’d rather see the money go to bike trails or employees who pick up litter in College Park than to a building he said will compete with the Georgia International Convention Center, also owned by the city.
"You're in a hole, and you just keep digging a hole," Duke said. "It's a status thing. It's just a community's way of keeping up with the Joneses."
Some in the city see the arena project as a way to enhance the fortunes of the convention center, bringing more development to an area that could use the economic boost. But Duke, and other detractors, say it’s a boondoggle that won’t pay for itself, and that College Park cannot afford. Friday, Duke was in Fulton County Superior Court, trying to convince a judge that the city didn’t meet the requirements to be able to issue $35.8 million in bonds to pay for the project, in the hopes that a delay would stop the process long enough for members of council to reconsider their support.
Duke has the help of at least one member of city council, Roderick Gay, who was the lone vote against the proposal when the city voted to move forward with building the arena. Since then, the primary supporter of the arena was voted out of office, and both Duke and Gay think if there’s a way to delay approval of the city’s bonds th ere’s a way to rethink the whole project.
They may be tilting at windmills.
Ambrose Clay, the College Park Mayor Pro Tem, who Gay said might change his vote if given a chance to reconsider, declined to say how he might vote if the development authority had to reconsider.
But Clay, who some consider a potential swing vote that could kill the deal, said he’s a proponent of the arena.
“I am definitely in favor of going forward,” he said of the project. “I see it as very advantageous to the city.”
Clay said the arena project is a chance to improve the convention center area, adding another, complimentary use. The Hawks are an anchor tenant, but will use the facility less than 10 percent of the time, he said. That leaves plenty of opportunity for sports or other events to use the space the rest of the year.
College Park’s city manager, Terrence Moore, is also a proponent. The arena’s presence expands the city’s offerings, he said. Moore said his conversations with residents have showed a lot of support.
But about a dozen College Park residents showed up in Fulton County Superior Court Friday afternoon to support Duke’s attempt to stop the validation of $35.8 million in bonds. One, Alan Gravitt, said he doesn’t think financially successful teams, like the Hawks, should be asking for city money. Besides, he said, College Park — population 15,000 — is no Atlanta. Its resources are no match for its neighbor, which has been involved in several stadium deals.
"It's a vanity thing, to say we've got an arena," Gravitt said. "Concerts under the flight path? It's going to be loud."
The arena, near Camp Creek Parkway and I-85, has the capacity for 3,500 during a basketball game, and as many as 5,000 for concerts or other activities, Moore said. He said it would not compete with the convention center, which has ballrooms and exhibit halls.
Judge John Goger didn’t approve the development authority bonds Friday, but asked the city’s development authority to go back and reconsider waiving a requirement that the bonds be audited, the basis of Duke’s complaint. An attorney for the development authority said he expected them to approve the change next week. The decision to forgo the audit, attorney Earle Taylor said, was made to save money.
But higher interest rates if the bonds are delayed would cost more than $3 million, he said — better to simply agree to the audits. Taylor said the federal tax overhaul has made loans like these less advantageous for banks like SunTrust, which are issuing them for the city.
By siding with residents who want to stop the process, Clay said, Gay is simply increasing the possible cost to the city. But Gravitt hopes that there are enough members of the development board frustrated with the arena that they’ll decline to reconsider the audit requirement. Maybe that will delay the process long enough so the city’s interest rate expires and it has to go before council again — where, the opponents hope, the will to build the arena will have changed.
Gay, the councilman who voted against the project, said the community didn’t have enough of a chance to weigh in. Residents don’t support it, he said, and he thinks the project is unsustainable.
“I wish it could get reversed and come back before council,” he said. “It just does not make financial sense.”
In addition to the bonds, College Park will pay $9 million from its general fund reserves.
“You’re just piling on here,” Duke said. “You put yourself in a financial jam.”