College Park arena to open, with hopes of economic revitalization

Nickolas Parker lives in Lovejoy now, but the College Park native can’t help but be excited about the new arena opening in his hometown.

It’s not the biggest venue in the area, with about 5,000 seats for concerts and 3,500 for sporting events. But it belongs to the south side of Fulton County, and for that, Parker is grateful.

“We never had anything like this in our own backyard,” he said. “It’s something to be proud of.”

The more than $46 million Gateway Arena at College Park will hold its first event Saturday, a fan fest meant to introduce the city to its newest venue. After that, the Atlanta Hawks' development team, the Skyhawks, will take up residence for 24 games, followed by the WNBA's Dream for 18.

The Fox Theatre will program concerts and other entertainment on off nights, and the arena can also be rented for events like volleyball tournaments or graduations. Mercedes Miller, the executive director of the arena and the city-owned Georgia International Convention Center, said she expects it to be booked about 200 days a year.

There’s plenty of excitement about the arena — hope that it could put College Park on the map, and help sway perceptions that the city is a high-crime area adjacent to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. But there are also detractors who question the amount of money the city is spending on the project, and who worry that it won’t bring the expected jobs or economic boost that city leaders claim.

Parker is not among them.

“That energy is just going to radiate. It’s like a rebirth,” he said of the arena opening. “Everyone I grew up with is talking about this. It means everything to everybody.”

A cozy arena

Jack Longino, the mayor of College Park, said he doesn't expect the arena to make money on its own. The city would not share information about contracts with the Skyhawks, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported previously that they would be paying $5,000 a game in rent. Longino said the contract with the Dream is not final. While the city wants to sell naming rights and sponsorships, no deals have been inked.

Like Parker, Longino expects the benefits from the arena to ripple, to result in more meals at local restaurants and more stays at local hotel rooms. Unlike sports venues built for baseball teams in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, Longino said, taxpayers won’t be on the hook for any more than the $9 million from the general fund that went to pay for the project. Bond payments will largely be covered by car rental taxes, he said, and travelers will foot the bill.

“I’m thoroughly convinced the arena is going to outperform anything we ever imagined,” he said.

The arena itself is cozy, with a single level of seating and hard plastic chairs with attached cupholders. There are two large video boards, one on each end of the seating area, and scrolling ribbon boards on parts of the perimeter. There are four concession stands, one of which is slated to be filled by a local vendor, and room for food and drink kiosks around the concourse. And the building is soundproof, so people won’t have their event interrupted by airplanes, which fly by about every three minutes.

“It’s a smaller building than most facilities, but we tried to add all the bells and whistles so it’s more of an experience than just attending an event,” Miller said. “We want people to come back.”

Those bells and whistles also include enhanced wifi, so no one has to wait to upload their pictures, and soundproof floors so a dribbling basketball doesn’t endlessly echo.

The venue can also be expanded to add luxury boxes, if demand warrants it. There are some flexible spaces that can be used as VIP areas, or to entertain children during games. There’s even room outdoors for a biergarten. Murals and other art are yet to come.

“It’s big, but it’s intimate,” said Yanous Barner, the arena manager.

Internally, there are locker rooms for players, coaches and officials, and a number of multipurpose rooms that can be used for everything from mascots to concert green rooms. The venue has separate loading areas for food and TV equipment.

Tickets start at $10 for Skyhawks games, as does parking. The venue is also MARTA accessible, via the airport SkyTrain.

“I think it’ll be a great economic generator for this area,” Miller said. “We want to change the economics, and this is how you do it.”

Success is uneven

The economics in the city of 15,000 could use the boost. The poverty rate is 35 percent, and the median household income is just $29,087, according to Census data. But whether an arena can alter those numbers is up for debate.

Miller thinks locals will choose the air-conditioned venue and a Dream game over baseball in the heat, or will drive up from Macon for a staycation, spending the weekend in College Park. Harvey Newman isn’t so certain.

The city did some things right, Newman said, like keeping the arena a manageable size for teams that will likely draw a few thousand fans, not tens of thousands. But Newman, a professor emeritus at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State, said there's no guarantee that the arena will bring people in.

“Success rates are what I’d call uneven,” he said of arenas and amphitheaters. “All areas are not going to be tourism destinations.”

The transit access, the number of hotels in College Park, the proximity to the convention center and the arena’s small size give it a decent chance, Newman said.

But he also said it’s far more likely that people who are already in the area will be lured to a WNBA game than that new people will travel for one.

Meredith Hodges, who lives in College Park, said the city could have made better decisions. She thinks there are already too many arenas in metro Atlanta.

"If it has to be subsidized, then no, I don't think it's a good investment of the city's money," she said. "Anything that doesn't break even in the end is not a good investment."

But even some former naysayers are coming on board. John Duke tried to stop the arena's construction, called the project "frivolous," but said now that it exists, he wants to see it filled. Duke was one of five people who challenged Longino in the mayor's race this week, but he came up short.

“We’re on the hook,” Duke said. “There’s nothing to do. We have to pay for it.”

Some locals don’t think it will be a problem.

R.L. “Coco” Bright, who works as a concierge at the convention center, said she and others are “tremendously excited” for the opening. Damitrius Thomas, a Fairburn resident who grew up in College Park, said he can’t see anything negative about the arena. He expects to spend money at local restaurants, he said, as well as in the venue. And David Archer, a Cartersville basketball coach who has a former player on the Skyhawks team, said he’ll come see them play whenever he can. Archer said the team will help create a hometown feel in College Park, and will give people a pride of place.

It’s already working for people like Parker.

“I can’t wait for those jerseys to go on sale,” he said of the Skyhawks, who will have College Park emblazoned on their uniforms. “To walk around with my city on my back, it’s a beautiful thing.”