Dreams of massive sports complex in Stonecrest fading fast

Flirty Girlz Boutique owner Urecker Watts waits for customers in the doorway of her Little Five Points shop September 28, 2019. Watts shut down her women’s clothing boutique in Little Five Points last December to focus on her investment at a proposed multi-sport complex in Stonecrest. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Flirty Girlz Boutique owner Urecker Watts waits for customers in the doorway of her Little Five Points shop September 28, 2019. Watts shut down her women’s clothing boutique in Little Five Points last December to focus on her investment at a proposed multi-sport complex in Stonecrest. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Urecker Watts bought into the promise of Atlanta Sports City.

She paid $1,900 to secure her space at the planned food court and bazaar inside the Mall at Stonecrest, intended to provide dining and shopping options for thousands of athletes and spectators that would fill the proposed sports complex.

Watts shut down her women’s clothing boutique in Little Five Points last December to focus on her investment at the proposed multi-sport complex in Stonecrest. She obtained a DeKalb County business permit and hired a graphic designer to update her logo to meet Atlanta Sports City’s specifications.

Then she purchased thousands of dollars in inventory that sat in boxes while Atlanta Sports City faced delay after delay.

Although Watts and others have invested an untold amount of money into the sports complex, nothing was ever built. As these consultants and vendors become more vocal about their losses and the broken promises, Atlanta Sports City's partners have been silent about the future of their ambitious plans.

First, Watts was told the facility would open on Feb. 3 in time for Super Bowl. Then March 15. Then the scheduled grand opening was May 6.

At the end of that month, she asked Atlanta Sports City’s master developer to give her the money back.

“I’m losing the clients I’ve built, not to mention the $5K in winter inventory I’m stuck with, the new logo I hired someone to make and the store layout I had done,” Watts wrote in an email to her leasing agents.

Watts is still waiting.

Meanwhile, the land that Atlanta Sports City’s fields were supposed to be built on has been sold to a businessman who said he has his own plans for the site. Atlanta Sports City’s partners are facing lawsuits from vendors who say they were never paid for work on the project.

Watts no longer likes to drive by the mall, because it reminds her of all the broken promises.

“Every time I go, I get frustrated,” she said. “So I just stay away.”

Big dreams, plans

Atlanta Sports City is the brainchild of Zeric Foster and Patrick Henderson, two men who organize sports tournaments under the name Atlanta Sports Connection. They envisioned a place in Stonecrest, one of DeKalb County’s newest cities, where competitions and tournaments could be hosted for virtually any sport. They partnered with Vaughn Irons, owner of a company called APD Solutions, who became the master developer and eventually took the lead on the project.

Foster, Henderson, and Irons took center stage when plans for Atlanta Sports City were announced in February 2017. They described a $200 million sports complex featuring a 15,000 seat stadium, 22 soccer and football fields, seven baseball diamonds and five basketball courts. They said the first tournaments would be played by the end of the year.

What they didn’t mention is that they had not purchased the land and had not secure financing for the project.

Nearly three years later, not a single field has gone up. The old empty anchor building at the nearby mall that was supposed to house the food court and bazaar called Tournament Central is also unfinished. It looks like the gutted Kohl's that it is, and there have been no signs of progress in months. The same goes for the old Sears that was slated to become a sports medicine clinic operated by Emory Healthcare.

Emory still says it still intends to open a facility in Stonecrest, but it is pursuing new opportunities to make that happen. “We defer questions regarding other entities’ commitments to the Stonecrest community to those developers,” spokeswoman Janet Christenbury said.

Irons, Foster and Henderson have refused for months to answer questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Atlanta Sports City’s status and the impact of the many delays. They have not responded to numerous telephone calls, emails and text messages from reporters.

Representatives, including a spokeswoman and attorney for Irons, have also failed to respond.

‘Practically lured us here’

It’s not just the media looking for answers.

Atlanta Sports City partners are dealing with two lawsuits. One was filed in the spring by a consultant who said she was never paid for her work. After LaKeysa "Keya" Grant sued, Henderson said he and Foster's roles on the project had been reduced.

The owner of a turf installation company sued Foster, Henderson, Atlanta Sports Connection and APD Solutions in August, alleging that he loaned $50,000 for the up-front costs of Atlanta Sports City. Chris Daniluk, president of Deluxe Athletics, said he also treated the partners to a Hawks game and even the Super Bowl to help them woo investors, and in return he was promised that once the project began his company would serve as the contractor.

Daniluk’s lawsuit alleges that Irons formed a new company called Stonecrest Resorts to avoid debts incurred during Atlanta Sports City’s initial phases where Atlanta Sports Connection was listed as its owner and operator. He accused the partners of breach of contract and fraud.

And there are other vendors, like Watts, who say the project’s delays and apparent demise have left them in a lurch.

Sheree and Michael Campbell moved to Stonecrest for the sole purpose of opening a restaurant at Atlanta Sports City. They were living in Savannah and operating a casual restaurant when they became acquaintances with Irons. One day near the end of 2016 he paid them a visit and talked up his plans for Atlanta Sports City, they said.

“He invited us to be a part,” Sheree Campbell said. “Practically lured us here.”

When Irons and his partners marketed the sports development, they listed the Campbells’ restaurant, Putt Guttz, as a partner on promotional materials. “Specialty eatery that features low-country selections and delectable desserts. Serves all-day breakfast,” a brochure said.

The Campbell’s moved to Stonecrest in June 2018. When the Tournament Central building faced delays, they agreed to open their restaurant first in an empty space at the mall’s food court. The mall’s owner, Urban Retail Properties, had become a partner in Atlanta Sports City.

The Campbells posed for photos in front of the space with friends, marking their move to Metro Atlanta with smiles. It was short-lived.

The food court space was not up to county building codes, and mall managers never made the fixes, the Campbells said. They had already paid a $5,000 deposit and spent nearly $10,000 on equipment, inventory and improvements.

With no restaurant they had no income.

For awhile, the Campbells scraped by with private catering and baking jobs. But this summer they decided to move back to Savannah.

“We spent money thinking we were going to make money,” Sheree Campbell said. “We came here to make money. We came here to own a restaurant.”

Watts also moved on. She re-opened her boutique in Little Five Points over the summer and is trying to rebuild her customer base after a forced six-month hiatus. On a recent weekend, she ran a “golden ticket” special. She hid golden stickers in certain items for sell. Customers who purchased them could win a gift card or a flat-screen TV.

Both she and the Campbells said they don’t have the money to sue Irons or his company.

“To me, he’s a giant and I can’t fight him,” Watts said. “I’m a small business.”

Waiting for answers

It is unknown how many other business owners are in a similar situation or how much money Irons and his partners collected from investors. Two attorneys who reviewed a lease one of the vendors signed said it is written in a way that it could be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to recoup the money they paid - even if Atlanta Sports City is never built.

“One could try and argue that the developers defrauded the tenants to the extent that they represented that they owned the land or that they even had the financial ability to complete this project,” attorney David Merbaum, whose specialties include small business law said. “However, unless the tenants go after individuals, I would think that any claim or judgment against Stonecrest Resorts, LLC may not even be collectible.”

Business attorney Glenn Lyon said vendors appear to have made deposits based on verbal and email conversations indicating Atlanta Sports City’s opening is imminent, and they continued to trust the project’s developers even as the opening date was pushed back.

Irons’ spokeswoman, Tee Foxx, and his attorney, Nicole Massiah, never answered a list of questions from the AJC. In early October, Foxx said in an email that Atlanta Sports City’s partners would not be speaking publicly about their “privately funded project” but there would be updates eventually to share.

Sheree and Mike Campbell eventually asked a third party to intervene: Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary.

At the time of the project’s unveiling, Lary was in the final weeks of his campaign for mayor. He spoke at the event and posed for photos with Irons, Foster and Henderson.

After he was elected mayor, Lary held up Atlanta Sports City as the type of developments he wanted for Stonecrest. He said the partners were his friends.

During his State of the City address in May 2018, Lary admitted that these friends were having trouble securing financing for their project. But he asked constituents to be patient.

“This takes time; It takes energy; It takes effort; It takes vision,” Lary told the crowd. “It takes a person that can stick to it and see it to the end.”

Irons was among the speakers when Lary launched his re-election campaign in December. By that time, the mayor had already met with the Campbells about Atlanta Sports City's delays.

“This is what is going on in your house,” Sheree Campbell remembers telling him. She described the broken promises and shifting opening dates. Her husband printed out a list showing the $14,000 they were out.

The mayor promised to reach out to Irons and lobby for their reimbursement, the Campbells said. But weeks later he sent word that Irons had refused to pay them and there was nothing more he could do.

Lary has distanced himself from Atlanta Sports City in recent months, saying the city needed move on from the project. The mayor heaped praise on entrepreneur and philanthropist Lecester "Bill" Allen, who purchased the land previously slated for Atlanta Sports City and is now making his own lofty plans for the space, including a hotel, convention center and amphitheater.

“Things just didn’t go as they planned, so I moved on to a more certain development,” Lary said in a recent statement. “We are just as disappointed as everyone else.”

But some people are more than disappointed by Atlanta Sports City. They are out thousands of dollars — a life’s savings — and still waiting for answers.

Atlanta Sports City timeline

February 2017: Atlanta Sports City partners Vaughn Irons, Zeric Foster and Patrick Henderson announce plans for a $200 million sports complex in Stonecrest. They say the first soccer fields will be open by the end of the year.

March 2017: Jason Lary is elected as the first mayor of the city of Stonecrest.

May 2017: Emory Healthcare announces it will partner with Atlanta Sports City and open a sports medicine facility in the former Sears store at the Mall at Stonecrest.

May 2018: Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary encourages patience while Atlanta Sports City's partners work to secure funding to get their project started.

December 2018: Irons sends an email to the executive director of the Georgia Soccer Association saying the first sports fields will be open by the end of January 2019, but that doesn't happen.

December 2018: Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary launches his re-election campaign. Irons is among the speakers.

April 2019: Consultant LaKeysa "Keya" Grant sues Atlanta Sports City partners, alleging she was never paid for work done on the project.

May 2019: Businessman and philanthropist Lecester "Bill" Allen purchases the property previously slated for Atlanta Sports City and announces his own plans to build a hotel, convention center and ampitheater there.

May 2019: The "Old School Saturday" party held at Atlanta Sport City's property inside the mall is shut down by DeKalb County Fire Rescue, who said the event was unapproved because the venue did not have permits or a fire inspection.

September 2019: The Stonecrest Development Authority approves a pproved $700 million in revenue bonds for Allen's development. Mayor Lary said the deal has been in the works for more than two years.