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Atlanta to use city bonds to buy MLK papers

King collection will anchor proposed Center for Civil and Human Rights

The proposed Center for Civil and Human Rights crossed a major hurdle Monday when the Atlanta City Council voted to use city bonds to complete the purchase of a collection of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers.

The city will use part of a $40 million tax allocation bond directed to the CCHR to pay down the remaining $11.5 million in loans still owed on the collection of papers that was purchased from the King family three years ago for $32 million.

The documents will anchor the CCHR, which is tentatively scheduled to open in 2012 although it is competing for funds in a tight economy.

It is estimated that it will cost at least $125 million to complete the project.

“This is an opportunity to lock up the King papers, which will be relied on as one of the main attractions for the museum,” said Councilman Howard Shook, who chairs the finance committee. “We needed to go ahead and take advantage of this opportunity.”

Aside from the City Council, the allocation was also approved by the Atlanta Development Authority, which approved the initial funds for the CCHR, along with the council, last August.

“ADA is fully supportive of the center’s efforts to secure the rights to serve as a primary exhibitor using its TAD allocation,” said Cheryl Strickland, managing director of TADs at ADA. “We have performed our due diligence and determined that using TAD funds in this manner is an appropriate usage of the funds allocated to the center and aligns with federal tax law. The reason why we are supportive of this project is because it is an economic development driver. The project has nothing but upside for the city.”

In 2006, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin led an effort to purchase the papers from the King family shortly before they were set to auction them off at Sotheby’s. The purchase price was $32 million, which was secured by a loan from SunTrust Banks. Franklin then lined up donors to repay the bank loan, which came due at the end of June.

The collection, some 10,000 pieces of King’s manuscripts, writings and books, is currently housed at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center, where it can be accessed by students, researchers and scholars.

When the papers are finally paid for, the Woodruff will still maintain the papers, but ownership will go to Morehouse College, and the CCHR will serve as a primary exhibitor.

“We are honored to provide exhibition space for the Morehouse King Collection,” said Doug Shipman, executive director of the center. “As an anchor exhibit, the portions of the collection will play a critical role in the center’s visitor experience, offering people from around the world an opportunity to witness the tremendous contributions Dr. King made to impact both national and international civil and human rights struggles.”

But securing the papers is only one step.

Shipman said the center has about $50 million in hand to build the $125 million facility.

Shipman expects to break ground on the center — to be built near the Georgia Aquarium and the new World of Coca-Cola — in 2010 when he has raised at least $85 million in commitments.

“There is a lot of funding needed for construction, but as I understand, they are doing pretty well with their pledges,” Shook said. “But the economy may slow them down a little bit.”

Atlanta is trying to raise money in the midst of a down economy that is hitting the arts world hard. A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts showed that in 2008, only 30 percent of adults surveyed went to a museum in 2008, compared with 40 percent in 2002.

On top of that, the economy has forced museums and galleries from New York to Seattle to close over the past year. Close to home, in Macon, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, blaming lower revenues, is on the brink of closing if it doesn’t raise $225,000 by Oct. 27.

Here in Atlanta, organizers are trying to raise money for the CCHR against that grim backdrop, while there is also talk about raising money for the Atlanta Beltline and a new symphony hall.

“The economy is always a concern,” Shook said. “Atlanta has always been and continues to be an ambitious place, but I am starting to get concerned about how some of these projects were going to compete against each other for the same dollars. They insist they are not cannibalizing each other, but I have concerns about that.”