A rendering of an amphitheater under construction in Stockbridge.

South metro dreams of destination greatness but needs more hotels

South metro Atlanta is ready to become North Georgia’s next big meeting and entertainment destination, leaders in the communities say.

Henry County is pushing forward with plans for a convention center while Fayette County in recent years has claimed a stake as a popular concert stop for older acts, such as Mother’s Finest and Boz Scaggs.

The Atlanta Motor Speedway is exploring revving up its bottom line with casinos if gambling ever comes to Georgia, and many southside communities have built or are considering the construction of amphitheaters to draw visitors south of downtown Atlanta.

There’s only one problem: South metro needs more hotel rooms and more lodging variety.

Hotels in Henry, Clayton and Fayette counties make up just a fraction of metro Atlanta’s inventory at 11 percent of rooms, according to Mark Woodworth, a senior managing director at analytics firm CBRE Hotels. (For comparison, the hotels in downtown Atlanta alone comprise 12 percent of the metro area’s inventory).

And while the city of Atlanta and north metro communities offer a broad mixture of hotel types — from mid-scale brands affordable to the majority of the public to pricey lodgings with spas and butler services — most southside properties are economy or budget. Properties offering full kitchens and room service are mostly among the hotels around Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the Kimpton Overland Hotel near the Porsche North America headquarters.

“While demand is expected to continue to expand at an attractive rate given the business growth and development occurring in these areas, it will likely be some time before we see private-sector hotel developers make full-service lodging construction pencil out,” Woodworth said.

To many southside leaders the lodging industry has been shortsighted in its thinking about the area and could be costing it millions in potential revenue.

“I mean please, we have a lot going on,” Morrow City Manager Sylvia Redic said in describing the situation. In Morrow alone, she said, there are visitor jewels such as Clayton State University, the National Archives and Southlake Mall that could put plenty of heads in beds. In addition, Clayton has miles of parks and the “Gone With the Wind” experience in downtown Jonesboro.

“Think about it, everyone who goes to the Savannah port or the Magic Kingdom has to go right down the middle of Morrow,” she said.

Increasing the number of rooms and hotel diversity is important to the southside for another reason. The area is often overlooked for white-collar jobs, especially in Henry and Clayton, which have overly relied on logistics and warehousing for economic development.

“Ever since I’ve been in Henry County, Henry County has focused on logistics and warehousing” said Henry County Commissioner Bruce Holmes, a leading backer of the effort to bring a convention center to Henry. “All that has done is bring more semi-trucks and traffic to the county.”

Holmes said developers are interested in building a full-service hotel near the convention center because it breaks the county’s economic development mold. If that happens, office buildings and other white collar industries won’t be far behind, he said.

But hotel experts said south metro will have to prove there is a demand for more hotels before they get a big bump in inventory or brand diversity. Occupancy levels for southside hotels historically are 5% below the metro Atlanta average, Woodworth said. The area’s average room rates of $70-$80 a night also lag the metro average of about $115.

Harvey Newman, professor emeritus from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, said that means Henry may have to help finance its hotel ambitions if it wants something with room service and a more mid- to upper-scale experience.

“The local government usually has to end up subsidizing the investment in the hotel,” he said. “Hotel companies are not willing to make the investment just on the strength of having a convention facility.”

Paul Breslin, managing director of hotel consultancy Howarth, sees reasons for the southside to be optimistic. He said as land has become more expensive north of downtown, some developers are setting their sights on south metro.

Most of that interest has come from economy brands, but he thinks new, higher-scale concepts are not out of the question as the industry tests new opportunities. For instance, Tru hotels, one of Hilton’s new brands, recently opened a hotel in McDonough and is building another in Stockbridge, demonstrating that southside can attract more options.

“I think the south is the future,” he said, especially aroundthe airport. “There is a lot of growth down there.”

In Fayette, the developers of Pinewood Forest, a 235-acre mixed-use development near Pinewood Studios, plan a more than 200-room boutique hotel on their property as well as an extended-stay lodger. Pinewood Studios, home to many of Marvel Studios biggest films, including “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Endgame,” has been a boon to Fayette, and homeowners have found a lucrative business renting out their homes to production crews and movie staff because of the county’s relatively small hotel inventory.

“When factoring in the film and television industry, local corporate training needs, youth sports, health care, the airport, and tourism, there is a huge need for great hotel options,” Pinewood President Rob Parker said.

Khalfani Stephens, executive director of the Clayton County Development Authority, said the southside’s lodging landscape will be completely different in the next decade. College Park and the airport are working on plans for new hotels to serve what he thinks will be a boom in residential, commercial and job growth south of downtown as business reaches the saturation point of development on the north side.

The Atlanta Motor Speedway is another area ripe for development. Operators of the track have released an expansion concept that — if gambling were approved in the state — would include a casino, water park, movie theaters, e-sports arena and nightclub. There also would be a 700-room hotel.

For Clayton, the challenge has been getting a clear understanding of what hotel operators expect, Stephens said. Is the area’s niche more mid-level and economy or is there demand for high end properties? Would boutiques find an audience or do visitors want more established names?

To answer these questions, the county is starting to meet with industry leaders and attend conferences to match Clayton’s needs with theirs, he said.

“There is a definite need out there,” he said. “We need to figure out how to meet it.”

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