A rendering of what the Atlanta United FC headquarters and training complex will look like.

Impact of DeKalb soccer complex argued

Boosters tout the planned 3,500-seat soccer stadium and practice fields as green beacons for development for the area near Interstate 285 and Memorial Drive in DeKalb County.

The public’s $12 million-plus investment in the complex — training grounds and corporate headquarters for Atlanta United FC — will pay off, they say. Families will travel to the facilities for community youth sporting events, creating demand for hotels, restaurants and other amenities in the area.

“We’ll see activity out there that we’ve never seen before,” said Ray Gilley, president of the DeKalb Development Authority. “I expect that area out there to become a kind of community, self-contained, with everything you need.”

But some say those dreams, while possible, may be far-fetched.

Economists doubt the soccer complex will make a difference. They question whether soccer fields will do much for an area overshadowed by the DeKalb Jail, and they point to studies that show sports stadiums tend to do little to boost economic development. Even professional sports stadiums like Turner Field have struggled to attract nearby businesses, and Atlanta United’s facility won’t draw near as many fans.

“I don’t know how many people you’re going to have traveling to watch soccer there. This is kind of a dilapidated, run-down area,” said J.C. Bradbury, a sports economist at Kennesaw State University. “I don’t think it’s outlandish to say an area can pop up and become a retail or housing magnet, but you don’t usually see a major league practice facility at the heart of the plan.”

The Major League Soccer team, owned by Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, announced this month it had reached a deal to locate its complex in DeKalb County in exchange for a series of government incentives.

The deal allows the team to use 41 acres of government land tax-free, includes a $7 million payment from the county for use of office space and requires about $5 million for demolition of existing structures.

The land is valued at $5 million, and the team will save an estimated $540,000 per year in taxes, according to documents for the deal obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through Georgia’s Open Records Act.

In exchange, Atlanta United will spend about $35 million for the stadium, three practice fields and a two-story headquarters. The team also may build another four fields and an indoor training facility later at a cost of $16 million. After 30 years, the county will regain control of the land and facilities. The facility will employ about 123 people by 2018.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May has said he hopes the soccer grounds are the start of his vision for a new Downtown DeKalb. He said the area could later add a government center, bringing foot traffic to the area.

“For me, it was more than just a soccer team, more than just a sporting facility here in DeKalb County,” May said. “We expect jobs to come. We expect that development to have a catalytic effect for more development.”

Other sports locations in Metro Atlanta — including the Atlanta Falcons training camp in Flowery Branch and the Gwinnett Braves stadium in Lawrenceville — have had mixed results when it comes to attracting businesses.

A residential community adjacent the Gwinnett Braves’ field was completed last month, but plans for commercial development stalled in the wake of the recession. Brand Properties is vetting plans for a new phase of construction that would include a combination of retail, office, hotel and residences near Coolray Field, which cost $64 million in public money.

“Sporting venues with strong brands and attendance are wonderful partners for developments as they serve not only as an anchor, but as an amenity that provides entertainment,” said Brand Properties President Michael Hoath.

But in Flowery Branch, not much economic activity can be credited to the Falcons’ headquarters there, said City Manager Bill Andrew. He noted though that the Falcons close most of their practices to the public, while Atlanta United intends to become a community center with many open practices.

“We’ve gotten a lot of exposure for being the home of the Falcons, but there hasn’t been a lot of direct development,” he said. “DeKalb is more of an international community. Here, the Falcons came more to get away from Atlanta to have some quiet time and concentrate on the season.”

Lakepoint Sports in Emerson, north of Acworth, is a travel destination for national amateur baseball events and other sports. CEO Earl Ehrhart said the 1,400-acre site has experienced much success. It attracts about 1 million visitors a year who spend an average of $637 per day each.

“Sports tourism is truly a clear leader in how families travel now, and sports are such a big part of our culture that families are doing it together,” he said.

Atlanta United’s complex will be much smaller.

While the county has trumpeted its potential for hosting regional soccer tournaments, it won’t have enough fields to do so, said Sharron Safriet, director of tournaments and events for Georgia Soccer. She said at least 16 fields are needed for large events.

“Those fields will be great. Are they enough to hold regional and national events? No,” she said. “Hopefully, this will become one of those facilities, but they’d have to build additional fields.”

Like any development, a sports facility could improve an underdeveloped area, said Kris McWhite, who teaches sports economics at the University of Georgia. But publicly funded stadiums are usually a benefit for team owners and an expense for taxpayers, he said.

“If they call it an investment, they are ignorant, lying or both,” he said. “In the sports economics circles, there’s not much argument. Those touting the economic boom can usually be found to have a personal benefit.”

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