LOCAL UPDATE: Questions raised about status of Stonecrest’s Atlanta Sports City

The plan hatched by developer Vaughn Irons and his partners for Atlanta Sports City was grand: The $200 million complex would include two dozen sports fields for soccer, football and baseball, as well as basketball courts and a 15,000-seat stadium, they said. Two professional sports teams were reportedly ready to play at the 200-acre site.

That was back in February of 2017. But, so far, none of it has happened.

During a tour earlier this month of a former Kohl’s department store at the epicenter of the proposed site and now referred to as Tournament Central by developers, Irons still painted a vivid picture of all that is to come.

“It’s a very complex project,” he said. “So, when people say, why are we taking so long, there is a lot of stuff to deal with.”

VIDEO: Zeric Foster talks to the AJC in February 2017

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A $200 million sports complex is being built in Stonecrest.

Project delays and shifting timelines for Atlanta Sports City have led some Stonecrest citizens to question whether ambitious ideas on paper will ever become reality. Among the skeptics is City Councilwoman Diane Adoma.

The project sounds like a good idea for the city, she said, providing exposure and new revenue. But she worries that Stonecrest leaders have been misled about whether the complex is on solid footing.

“Until I see dirt moving and a shovel in the ground and infrastructure going up, I have some serious concerns about it,” Adoma said.

Causing her unease: A possible default on a $2.5 million loan taken out for the Kohl’s building, a reported split between Irons and two men who were supposed to lead the project, and a lack of information on where the project stands.

Adoma said Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary has championed the complex and its economic development benefits but has not addressed how plans have shifted in recent months.

“I see it as a catalyst” that, if built, could jump start more development in Stonecrest, she said. “However, this year in December, we were supposed to have games going on out there.”

When Atlanta Sports City was announced in early 2017, developers said construction would begin that fall. The first soccer fields were supposed to be open for play by the end of that year.

Twelve months have passed since. Greg Griffith, executive director of the Georgia Soccer Association, is still waiting. He said the Atlanta area needs a space that can host national soccer tournaments, and he believes Atlanta Sports City could fit the bill.

“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the construction has been delayed and, to be honest, I don’t know when the construction will start,” Griffith said recently. “What I’ve repeatedly told them is we can’t commit to using the park until there are fields there, and there aren’t any fields there.”

Griffith periodically receives emails from Irons’ staff with updates. The most recent one from early December said there would be seven soccer fields built by the end of January.

But there has been no noticeable construction activity at the site.

Backers said Atlanta Sports City could attract up to 3 million visitors a year with an economic impact of $197 million.

“For a lot of reasons, it’s a good spot,” Griffith said. “And if there is money, fields could be built.”

Financing may have become an issue. On Common Ground News, a weekly newspaper that covers south DeKalb County, reported in October that Atlanta Sports Connection, the entity that was supposed to build and operate Atlanta Sports City, had defaulted on the $2.5 million loan used to purchase the Kohl’s building.

Zeric Foster and Patrick Henderson are the co-founders of Atlanta Sports Connection, but neither man has spoken publicly about the sports complex in months. Efforts to reach Foster and Henderson were unsuccessful.

During his State of the City address in May, Mayor Lary noted that finding $200 million to finance the privately owned project was a tall order.

“Do you know how hard it is to raise $200 million dollars?” he said during the May speech. “We can’t get $2 million in places. So, this takes time. It takes energy. It takes effort. It takes vision. It takes a person that can stick to it and see it to the end.”

Vaughn Irons, master developer of the Atlanta Sports City complex in Stonecrest, gives a tour of the Tournament Central building on Dec. 15, 2018. The building was formerly a Kohl’s at the Mall at Stonecrest. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Irons is the face of the project. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has tried to reach him for the last two weeks, including phone calls and emails to his office and a spokeswoman. The spokeswoman said he was traveling for work and then off for the holidays and unable to answer questions.

When Atlanta Sports City was originally announced, Irons and his partners said the sports complex and anticipated tournaments would happen in a matter of months. They said sports would draw a large number of people to Stonecrest and therefore help reinvigorate the adjacent Mall at Stonecrest, which has lost several anchor tenants over the years.

Now Irons says the sports fields are coming later and he is focused for now on revitalizing the mall.

He said Tournament Central, a welcome center that will also serve as an indoor marketplace and event space, will be completed in 2019. So will a second project called Fitness Central that will have health and wellness facilities and is located in space formerly occupied by Sears.

The chief executive of Discover DeKalb, the county’s tourism marketing agency, spoke glowingly about Atlanta Sports City at that initial flashy event and in the months after. However, James Tsismanakis did not respond to the AJC’s questions on the status of the project or if the delays troubled him.

Topgolf Swing Suite, which provide simulated golf experiences in an indoor setting, confirmed it still has an agreement with Atlanta Sports City, but company officials said any further details should come from the developers.

In May 2017, Emory Healthcare announced that it had signed on as Atlanta Sports City’s official sports medicine partner  and would build a clinic in Fitness Central. Asked about the status recently, an Emory spokeswoman would only confirm the agreement is still in place.

“Emory Healthcare plans to open an Emory Sports Medicine Center regional office at Stonecrest’s Atlanta Sports City in 2019,” its statement said. “Additional plans are under development and no further information is available at this time.”

The spokeswoman declined to provide any other details, such as when construction would begin and whether the timeline had shifted since the partnership launched.

Jim Roberts, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Urban Retail Properties, the entity that manages the Mall at Stonecrest, said the company is working with Atlanta Sports City to update the overall vision. New details will come in early 2019, he said in an email.

“Those development efforts include the new mall expansion as a connection point between the existing mall and the outdoor sports components,” Roberts wrote. “Our partners have been spending 2018 redefining our approach and principals.”

Asked to comment on the project’s delays and shifting focus, Lary said all questions should be sent to spokesman Adrion Bell. Bell said that Atlanta Sports City is being treated like any other private development in Stonecrest: The city welcomes it, but is not involved in day-to-day decisions.

During the May speech, Lary expressed no reservations about Irons’ project.

“I’m putting my name behind this with him,” the mayor said.

About Atlanta Sports City

Here’s what was originally planned when the project was announced in February 2017.

Total cost: $200 million

Total size: 200 acres

Playing surfaces: 15,000 seat stadium, 22 soccer and football fields, seven baseball diamonds and five basketball courts

Economic impact: $197 million based on 3 million visitors annually

First fields completed: End of 2017

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