College Football Hall of Fame’s long road to Atlanta


OPENING DAY

What: College Football Hall of Fame and Chick-fil-A Fan Experience

Where: 250 Marietta Street, near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta

When: Grand-opening festivities begin Saturday at 9 a.m. outside the building. Doors open at 10 a.m.

Tickets: $16.99 to $19.99, available at www.cfbhall.com and the box office

Get a sneak peak at the College Football Hall of Fame including a photo gallery and find out why it's not your grandfather's Hall of Fame on myajc.com.

The College Football Hall of Fame opens Saturday in downtown Atlanta, culminating an 11-year struggle to bring the attraction here.

The project started with quiet conversations in 2003, moved to the back burner for a couple of years as Atlanta instead pursued the NASCAR Hall of Fame, drew fanfare with the announcement of a deal in 2009, almost died in early 2012, then rallied to a comeback victory.

At 10 a.m., the doors will open to the 94,000-square-foot facility.

“Good things are worth waiting for,” said Steve Hatchell, president of the National Football Foundation, which controlled the decision to move the Hall of Fame here from South Bend, Ind.

Along the way the project changed sites, leadership and timetables. It ran into the Great Recession and significant fundraising trouble. Even its name changed, growing into College Football Hall of Fame and Chick-fil-A Fan Experience.

What didn’t change was the goal of combining historical artifacts with modern interactive technology in a college-football shrine that would honor the greats of the game and entertain fans of all ages.

“It was our dream … that Atlanta could become literally the college football center of the United States,” Chick-fil-A executive vice president Steve Robinson said. “To do that, it seemed like we needed an attraction that would celebrate college football year-round.”

The facility joins a lineup of attractions in the Centennial Olympic Park area that includes the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola and the recently opened National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

The state spent $15 million in taxpayer money on the Hall of Fame project for an adjacent parking deck, road work and a connector into the adjoining Georgia World Congress Center. Not including those expenses, the building cost $68 million, which was privately funded except for $1 million from Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority, said John Stephenson, CEO of Atlanta Hall Management, the nonprofit organization formed to build and operate the facility.

Gov. Nathan Deal said this week the attraction is expected to draw 500,000 visitors per year and generate annual sales of about $12 million.

“Now, as the governor of this state, I can tell you those are good numbers,” Deal said.

Like the sport the Hall of Fame celebrates, its journey from South Bend to Atlanta was grueling.

How it began

Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, pulls a letter from a file in his office. Dated July 10, 2003, it is from Bob Casciola, Hatchell’s predecessor at the NFF.

“I truly enjoyed our visit,” Casciola wrote. “Thank you for being so honest and thorough in expressing your feelings about what the future can hold for both of our organizations.”

The letter followed a meeting Casciola and a colleague held a few days earlier in Atlanta with Stokan and George Morris, a Georgia Tech football star of the 1950s who died in 2007.

“We showed them Centennial Olympic Park and told them, ‘This is where we will build a new College Football Hall of Fame,’ ” Stokan said. “That is when it began.”

Actually, a precursor had come even earlier. In 1992, when the NFF was seeking to move the Hall of Fame from the Cincinnati area, Atlanta was among the candidates. The NFF chose South Bend and opened there in 1995. Before long, attendance and revenue lagged behind expectations.

By 2003, Stokan thought it was time for Atlanta to make a move.

But a different project came along that superseded his efforts: Atlanta’s aggressive battle against Charlotte and three other cities in 2004 and 2005 to be the site of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“I decided to go quiet with the College Football Hall of Fame because I didn’t want NASCAR to use that against us,” Stokan said.

As soon as Atlanta lost that race — NASCAR chose Charlotte in March 2006 — Stokan began calling Hatchell, who was settling into his new job at the NFF.

After meeting with officials of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, Metro Chamber, city and state, Stokan sent Hatchell a booklet in May 2006 outlining reasons the college football shrine should be here. This time, Atlanta’s pitch was predicated on an unusual condition.

“I said to the NFF, ‘If you want to come to Atlanta, we’ll get this thing done. But if you want to bid it out, we’re not bidding,’ ” Stokan recalled. “ ‘Because I don’t want to go through the same thing the city just did with NASCAR.’ ”

In June 2007, the NFF agreed to enter exclusive negotiations about moving the Hall of Fame here. It took another two years before a deal was reached.

Even then, the project was largely unfunded. Chick-fil-A and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl had committed $5 million apiece, but tens of millions more in corporate sponsorships would be needed before construction could begin. No one seemed worried about it at a giddy press conference Sept. 24, 2009, announcing the Hall of Fame was Atlanta-bound.

The plan was to open in 2012.

How it almost died

By late 2011, the project was in trouble.

“We had hit a spot where we were not closing the kind of (sponsorship) deals we needed to close,” said Chick-fil-A’s Robinson, who is chairman of the Atlanta Hall Management board. “This thing had gone on long enough that I was hearing and other people were hearing an apprehension in the market on the part of CEOs and CMOs (chief marketing officers) of whether it was really going to happen. So there was a confidence issue.”

Much had been accomplished by that point: the site chosen from 12 options that were considered, all around the park; the design team and general contractor hired; the exhibit design largely conceived; access to $22.5 million in loans lined up from a syndicate of three banks, contingent on reaching a certain level of sponsorship commitments by a certain date. Several sponsors, including Coca-Cola, had committed beyond the original two — but not nearly enough.

In November 2011, the AHM board decided to replace Stokan as the project’s top executive. It was “one of the hardest things the board has ever had to deal with … because this Hall would not be in Atlanta if it wasn’t for Gary,” Robinson said. “It was his vision, his dream. He sold the NFF on it.”

But the project had reached a point, Robinson said, of requiring full-time leadership Stokan couldn’t provide because of his dual role with the bowl, which was growing and eyeing a place in a college football playoff.

Stokan acknowledged recently that it was hard to give up the reins of the Hall of Fame project, but didn’t dispute the need for a different type of leader.

“I knew that at the time I wasn’t strong enough to raise the money. In this city, CEOs give to other CEOs,” Stokan said. “I needed a CEO to come in and take this, or someone to step up and fund this, because I don’t have … the power.”

The comeback

To replace Stokan as the project’s top executive, the AHM board in December 2011 chose Stephenson, a native Atlantan who at the time was a 36-year-old partner at law firm Troutman Sanders. He had been AHM’s pro bono attorney, was well connected in the city and knew the project inside and out. He knew it was in jeopardy.

“It could easily have not happened,” Stephenson said after taking a reporter on a tour of the ready-to-open facility.

Early in 2012, as rumors surfaced that Dallas might try to wrest the attraction away, AHM’s staff, board, building committee and consultants re-examined the business plan. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on the bank loans, which would be used to help pay for construction and then be repaid with sponsorship money.

“We were within two months or less of having to have a minimum amount of funding committed for the line of credit to be available to us,” Robinson said. “That’s why I was losing sleep.”

The pressure eased when Chick-fil-A substantially increased its commitment, satisfying the banks’ deadline, Robinson said.

Still, AHM’s contract to build on state property — a Georgia World Congress Center parking lot — required it to have funding commitments equal to the full construction cost before ground could be broken. There was still a ways to go.

“My sense was there were all these sponsors out there who wanted to be a part of it — if it were happening,” Stephenson said. “It was a big chicken-or-egg: ‘We want to be a part of it if it’s happening,’ but ‘I can’t make it happen if you’re not a part of it.’ ”

The lawyer in him came up with a solution: Potential sponsors were offered contracts that didn’t require them to put in a dollar until enough others signed up to ensure construction. Once that threshold was reached, all contracts would become binding.

“Coming from a contract-lawyer perspective, it was a creative solution to the chicken-or-egg problem,” Stephenson said.

In September 2012, Stephenson told the state that signed contracts totaled $51.5 million, including deals with AT&T and Kia Motors. Combined with the line of credit, there was enough funding to proceed. Construction began in January 2013.

From that point, things went smoothly. More sponsors came on board. Construction stayed on schedule. And now, finally, it’s opening day.