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Atlanta: Arts centers in the burbs

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Arts in the suburbs

Facilities planned for Cobb, North Fulton

By TOM SABULIS

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

SUBURBAN VENUES AT A GLANCE

Cobb County Performing Arts Center

What: A 3,000-seat main hall and theaters of 700 and 200 seats. It's being designed by Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates, the same firm that did the Cobb Galleria.

Location: Near the intersection of I-75 and I-285, just west of I-75 at Akers Mill Road near the Cobb Galleria Centre.

Cost: $125 million.

Public funding: $57 million in hotel-motel tax revenue over 20 years. Kennesaw State University and Southern Polytechnic State University also will provide funding and use the smaller theaters.

Opening: Fall 2006 at the earliest.

North Fulton Centre for the Arts

What: An amphitheater with 12,000 seats, a 2,000-seat multipurpose hall, a 300-seat black box theater, educational and instructional space (classrooms, assembly rooms, studios) and visual art galleries.

Location: Across Ga. 400 from North Point Mall. The property is on both sides of Westside Parkway, roughly between Mansell Road and Haynes Bridge Road.

Cost: $85 million to $90 million. The amphitheater -- the first phase -- will cost $15 million.

Land cost: $4.2 million. Closing set for Dec. 15.

Public funding: Fulton County and Alpharetta have put $1 million each toward the cost of the land; the rest will be paid for privately.

Opening: 2006 for the amphitheater, although a groundbreaking date has not been set. The educational spaces would come next, followed by the small theater. The 2,000-seat multipurpose hall would be last.

Arena at Gwinnett Center

What: A multipurpose arena that plays host to sports events and concerts. It seats 11,000 people for arena football and minor league hockey. For concerts, it can be configured for from 3,500 to 8,000 seats, or up to 13,000 for major acts.

Location: In Duluth, off Sugarloaf Parkway.

Total cost: $65 million, part of a $91 million expansion of the Gwinnett Civic and Cultural Center that includes a 21,600-square-foot ballroom plus additional site development and parking.

Public funding: $65 million in hotel-motel tax revenue and $25 million in Gwinnett County Development Authority bonds. To help pay for the project, the County Commission in 2000 raised the tax on hotel stays from 6 cents on the dollar to 7 cents.

Opened: February 2003.

BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME -- especially if so many of them live nearby and don't want to make the drive downtown.

Two performing arts complexes planned for Cobb and north Fulton counties already appear to be plenty popular long before ground has been broken on either site.

No wonder. Each would be located in growing, highly traveled Northside corridors where they can more easily serve affluent, culture-hungry audiences, including many people who, supporters say, don't travel into the city for performances.

The mere thought of modern theaters and concert halls sprouting on the populous Northside has arts groups, entertainment promoters and public officials dreaming of untapped audiences, dollar signs and happy voters who get to boogie closer to home.

"The arts will all be lifted as a consequence of these new venues," said Betty Siegel, president of Kennesaw State University. "They create a full lineup for the community. Cities become great when they have something for the spirit."

Although the arts complexes would be paid for largely with private money, both were boosted last month with public funds.

The Cobb County Commission voted to contribute $57 million in hotel-motel tax revenue over 20 years to build a $125 million, multitheater performing arts center adjacent to the Cobb Galleria Centre, at I-75 and Akers Mill Road. It would be located on the same visible parcel of land where Cirque du Soleil, the acclaimed French-Canadian circus, broke box-office records earlier this year (and where it will reopen in March).

The county money was critical to the project's momentum.

"It's the foundation of our effort," said John Williams, the founder of Post Properties, who served as chairman of the facility's task force, the Cumberland Galleria Arts Alliance. "The easiest part will be to complete the capital campaign. We're in good shape to go build the facility."

Groundbreaking could occur next summer.

Fulton County and the city of Alpharetta each contributed $1 million toward the purchase of land for the North Fulton Centre for the Arts, an $85 million to $90 million project that would include a 12,000-seat amphitheater. Organizers expect to close on the land deal Dec. 15, purchasing 28.5 acres in a 220-acre mixed-use development on the west side of Ga. 400 between Alpharetta and Roswell for $4.2 million.

"We're marketing this as a regional center, a world-class facility," said Barrie Davenport, a representative of the north Fulton center.

Local governments quickly anted up for both facilities, for one simple reason: public demand.

"Where we are located there's a million people within reach that probably will never get downtown, and we're trying to service that community," said Bob Fulton, the Fulton County commissioner who has been a key supporter of the Alpharetta project, which is expected to include a 2,000-seat hall and 300-seat black-box theater in addition to its amphitheater.

The population of north Fulton County soared 72.9 percent from 1990 to 2000 while the city of Atlanta's grew 9.2 percent, according to census figures. As of 2000, north Fulton had 291,751 people -- more than one-third of the population of the county.

Diana Wheeler, community development director for the city of Alpharetta, said officials have heard plenty in recent years from "grass-roots folks" who have criticized the lack of local entertainment options.

"Roswell has a 600-seat cultural center. That's all that's up here," Wheeler said, predicting that the north Fulton complex would be "a huge economic generator."

A similar story is heard in Cobb County.

"There's a greater and greater demand for the arts out here," said Earl Smith, chairman of the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority, which runs Cobb Galleria Centre and would operate the performing arts facility. "The business community and the corporate world want this."

Indeed, the emergence of the two centers addresses a critical need for metrowide facilities cited in a November 2000 study by Research Atlanta at Georgia State University. The report ranked the Atlanta region 13th out of 20 major U.S. cities in available seats per capita.

"Metro Atlanta can stimulate arts activity . . . by strategically growing arts infrastructure in the suburbs rather than concentrating it in the urban core," said the study, titled "The Arts Economy in 20 Cities: Where Does Atlanta Stand?"

Arts and entertainment providers are happy to see new opportunities for their product.

Their enthusiasm, however, is tempered by past failures.

Three years ago, the Woodruff Arts Center signed an option on 1,200 acres in Habersham County, in northeast Georgia, in hopes of developing a summer concert venue for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. That plan quickly evaporated, reportedly over the cost of developing the land.

Atlanta's dominant concert promoters, Peter Conlon and Alex Cooley -- now working with industry giant Clear Channel Entertainment -- gave up, in the face of neighborhood opposition, their plan for a 20,000-seat amphitheater in another Alpharetta location in 1997.

No such opposition to the new project is expected. County Commissioner Fulton said the amphitheater is being built next to industrial property with approved zoning, "excellent access" and "virtually no residential property within reach."

While the ASO and Clear Channel both produce pop music series at Chastain Park Amphitheatre -- in a complicated arrangement with the city of Atlanta, which owns the facility -- each organization is bidding to run the new north Fulton venue.

johnson Sullivan, executive vice president of marketing for the Atlanta Falcons, a trustee serving on north Fulton's executive committee, said both groups are "viable candidates" to manage the center.

Over in Cobb County, the prospect of a 3,000-seat hall has intrigued major theater and dance producers because it would be the first performance hall of its size in metro Atlanta -- a major factor in determining its use, said Michele Swann, general manager of the Cobb Galleria Centre.

The Fox Theatre and Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center each have about 4,600 seats. Then there's a drop-off to Symphony Hall (1,762 seats), at the Woodruff Arts Center.

"The size is very important to the project," Swann said. "We knew a void existed. [Our consultants] felt we could be successful with that size."

Gwinnett sets an example

Backers in Cobb and Fulton can take heart at the early success of the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, which opened in February. In its first year, the arena, which seats up to 13,000 but can offer smaller configurations, will hold about 100 events, including concerts by major acts such as Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and George Strait. General Manager Preston Williams said bookings are selling at about 90 percent capacity.

Although the arena is home primarily to small-market sporting events (arena football, minor league hockey), it expects to book 27 or 28 concerts next year, Williams said -- about the same as Philips Arena downtown.

Gwinnett leaders saw the same demand for local entertainment options as Cobb and Fulton.

"As the county has grown, leaders saw the needs of the community expand," Williams said. For Gwinnett residents, "there is a need for entertainment, sports, those kinds of things at home, regardless of being downtown."

Unlike Gwinnett, the Cobb and north Fulton venues would host only arts and entertainment events, with the smaller theaters in their respective complexes playing host to school performances and community groups.

Cobb has staked out Broadway musicals as its priority: Even the model of its facility is decorated with banners advertising "Cats" and "Les Miserables," two shows that have played the Fox several times.

Officials hope to sell naming rights to the facility for up to $20 million.

The north Fulton complex wants to position itself as a suburban Woodruff Arts Center, said Penn Hodge, vice chairman of the board of trustees for the nonprofit organization that would oversee the facility. It expects to emphasize the educational aspects of the arts while the amphitheater leasing pays the freight.

Early plans call for the amphitheater's name to have a "naturalistic" local connection -- something along the lines of Red Rocks Amphitheatre west of Denver or Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. One contender, Hodge said, is "Big Creek." (That was also the proposed name for the earlier amphitheater that failed.)

Unlike Cobb, Hodge said north Fulton organizers essentially ruled out selling corporate naming rights.

What if some company offered a lot of money to hang its shingle on the center? "It would have to be a pretty big check," he said with a laugh.

Will downtown lose edge?

It remains to be seen whether the new influx of arts and culture north of the Perimeter would hurt downtown by giving suburbanites fewer reasons to drive into the city.

"Yes and no," Conlon said when asked if downtown could suffer. "There's enough going on [downtown]. But also there's a lot of people who aren't coming downtown. In some ways, the city's been a little asleep at the switch, because it's so hard to get things done. It's hard to create things."

Conlon called metro Atlanta "under-venued" compared with other cities. "It was only a matter of time before suburban communities saw the cultural and financial value of building arts facilities close to home," he said. "We're not surprised to see it happening."

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, like many others interviewed for this story, said the suburban facilities would only strengthen the area's cultural profile.

"I am not fearful that we're losing our edge, because there has been such a major commitment to the arts community downtown," Franklin said. She referred to the expansion of the High Museum of Art, a planned concert hall for the ASO at 14th and Peachtree Streets, and the recent refurbishment of the Civic Center.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, a major advocate of the Galleria project, agreed that his venue would only complement intown facilities such as the Fox.

"It's my understanding that there's more demand for shows than space to show them," Olens said. "The Fox can't accommodate them all."

The 74-year-old landmark on Peachtree Street is booked more than 300 days a year, said Ed Neiss, general manager of the Fox.

"We get a lot of calls almost on a daily basis from all kinds of people who would like to do projects at the Fox Theatre, and we have to tell them for the most part that we're unavailable," he said.

Scott Zeiger, the New York-based chief executive of Clear Channel's theatrical division in North America, said Cobb's 3,000-seat hall could host plays and small musicals that don't come to Atlanta now because the Fox and Civic Center are too big.

But even some blockbusters might prefer the intimacy of Cobb's venue over the Fox.

"For the right show, it [the Cobb hall] could be a terrific place," Zeiger said. "We're going to explore it. We intend to continue at the Fox. But I believe competition is healthy amongst venues."

At least one major concert promoter feels that the Alpharetta amphitheater would face serious competition from existing venues -- at Chastain (7,000 seats) and HiFi Buys Amphitheatre at Lakewood (19,000 seats).

"There's an awful lot of competition with these outdoor venues right now, more so than the talent can support," said Steve Harris, who also owns Variety Playhouse and books the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts downtown. "There's not enough name talent to fill them all. And it's not just those. In the summer, it's not like Gwinnett [arena] or Philips are closing up."

As for luring major acts from HiFi Buys, which is booked by the House of Blues, Harris said, "Why would Jimmy Buffett or Dave Matthews play 12,000 seats when they can play 19,000 seats?" (HiFi Buys Amphitheatre representatives declined to comment for this story.)

The Gwinnett arena's management agreed with Harris about the competition between amphitheaters.

"There's only so much programming that can support 12,000 seats or more," said General Manager Williams. "It would be a pretty good fight to keep your head above water, I would think."

Williams does not view the Alpharetta venue as a threat to the Gwinnett arena, even though the amphitheater would have about the same number of seats.

"Tours are put together for the most part as indoor or outdoor tours," said Williams. "I think we've found our niche right now."

That's something Cobb and Fulton counties are anxious to do.

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