Atlanta Civic Center faces red ink, should be updated, consultants say

The Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center is on pace to lose about $400,000 annually over the next five years, and immediate action needs to be taken to stop the facility from becoming a drag on the city’s finances, according to an outside consultant’s study.

With a history stretching back to its 1967 opening, the Civic Center has hosted some of the city’s premier events, including the opera and international exhibits on Princess Diana and King Tut. In recent years, the civic center has hosted filming for movies such as “Joyful Noise” and “The Three Stooges,” the TV pilot episode of “The Walking Dead,” Steve Harvey’s “Family Feud” and part of Denzel Washington’s movie “Flight.”

The influx of filming in the exhibit hall helps offset the theater’s trend of bleeding cash.

Today, the city-owned facility on the edge of downtown Atlanta has a tired look, a backlog of needed upgrades — including some to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act — and tough competition from more attractive venues. The opera is long gone, having fled to the suburbs in 2007.

The theater at the Civic Center pales against regional competition like the Fox Theatre and the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

On a recent morning, a pile of tires sat in the corner of the Civic Center’s parking lot, apparent evidence of illegal dumping.

But boosters say the facility could reclaim some of its past sheen with the right level of investment — building an additional sound stage for film shoots, or perhaps rebranding the complex as a full-service production facility.

George Dusenbury, commissioner of the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, said the site has tremendous potential, partly because of increased revenue from film and television production in the center’s cavernous exhibit hall.

“Status quo is not where we’d want to be,” Dusenbury said. “We have a valuable location. We have a valuable building that needs a little TLC.”

Dusenbury said the city had not yet decided on its next move. But he said adding a second sound stage to attract more of Atlanta’s thriving film industry appears to be one of the best options.

“In the coming year, we will be exploring all options,” said Duriya Farooqui, the city’s chief operating officer.

Demand for film and television production is robust in Georgia, with spending growing an average of 66 percent per year between fiscal years 2008 and 2011, according to the report, which was prepared by a consortium of consultants including New York-based HR&A Advisors Inc.

With the right level of investment, the facility could revitalize the entire neighborhood, according to the report, which was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Civic Center is bordered Georgia Power’s headquarters, apartment complexes on Piedmont Road and a wooded area to the north. It is a few blocks from a sprawling brick homeless shelter at Peachtree and Pine streets.

Dusenbury said the report supported leaders’ belief that the Civic Center still has impressive potential.

“It’s a 47-year old building, and it’s had a wonderful history,” he said. “You’re going to have some work keeping it up and running.”

Dusenbury said closing or selling the facility is not under serious consideration. The city is seeking public-private partnerships similar to the ones it has with the operators of its golf courses and the Chastain Park Amphitheater. Under those agreements, the private companies operate the facilities but generate cash for upgrades and improvements.

Positioning the complex as a place for private parties, culinary festivals, dancing lessons, movie nights and outdoor concerts could revitalize the surrounding neighborhood, according to the report. But transforming the site into a thriving hub of jobs and entertainment — with the full slate of desired upgrades — could cost $13 million or more.

It is not clear that city leaders — either at City Hall or in private business — would be willing to pledge that amount of cash.

Construction started on the Civic Center in 1965. It hosted the annual tour of the Metropolitan Opera, and the Atlanta Ballet performed there in the late 1980s. The 18-acre site includes an exhibit hall, theater and plaza. It hosts community programming, performances and film and television productions.

Today, the complex has weaknesses as an entertainment venue: outdated equipment, insufficient parking for big shows, lack of restaurants in the neighborhood, inadequate concessions and bathrooms and a worn aesthetic, according to a 53-page PowerPoint presentation prepared for city leaders.

The study was funded by the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.

The HR&A report weighed several scenarios. Under the status quo, substantial repairs would be needed to protect the city from legal liability, prevent further damage and put a dent in deferred maintenance. More than $5 million would be needed to address a leaky roof, and upgrade security systems, stair guards and railings and sprinkler systems.

Even after the capital improvements, the Civic Center would be expected to incur a $400,000 operating deficit every year.

Closing the Civic Center to permit future development would cost the city only $300,000, plus some minor annual costs, according to the report. But that move would create blight and eliminate jobs. Going a step further and demolishing the building could cost $5 million.

Investing $1.7 million to create a second film and television stage would reduce the operating deficit but generate only modest economic benefits and still require an ongoing subsidy of $107,000 per year. Also, the site would still need $5 million in safety upgrades.

Creating a second stage while closing the theater would create an annual operating surplus of $181,000, but “would remove a civic asset from public use,” the report. Mothballing the theater would cost about $100,000, while demolishing it would take $2 million.

A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, said the goal is to help the Civic Center get ready for an economic upturn.

“The Civic Center is a great asset and it’s served the city well,” Robinson said. “It really pre-dates a lot of other assets. I would describe it as an old warhorse that’s looking for a new pasture….It just needs a new look. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

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