After 33 years in charge of Atlanta’s convention engine — the Georgia World Congress Center — Dan Graveline is retiring at the end of the year.
Five governors, thousands of state lawmakers and millions of conventioneers later, Graveline is leaving as Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank searches for a replacement for the Georgia Dome, which also comes under Graveline’s purview.
So does Centennial Olympic Park, the focal point for a downtown renaissance in recent years.
“I told Billy [Payne] he was crazy as hell” when Payne, head of the Atlanta Olympics, proposed that the park be created for the Games in 1996, Graveline said last week. “I really give him credit for the astounding transformation” of the area.
All told, Graveline has run a state agency with annual revenue of $130 million and an economic impact of $2 billion, given all the out-of-town guests, according to a UGA estimate.
With his decades of service and significant responsibility, what has he learned?
That it’s important to ask the right question, said Graveline, a 68-year-old Toronto native.
“What’s the best business decision to run this enterprise, and we’ll worry about the politics later. It’s never been a political-hack organization,” he said. Over the years, the governors appointed “good business-oriented people” to the board he reports to, he added.
So what are these business-oriented people going to do to keep the Falcons after the bonds for the Dome are paid off in 2018 or 2019? Because of the seven-year lead time needed to build a new facility, a decision will need to be made in a few years.
“By 2012, we need to know what we’re going to do,” Graveline said. “This is the big elephant in the room for the next five or 10 years.”
Right now, as the Falcons explore their alternatives, GWCC has hired a consulting firm to consider options as well. They include building a new stadium on the GWCC campus or stripping down the Dome to its bare bones and rebuilding it.
Another key issue is whether the new facility will be an open-air stadium, a dome or a combo with a retractable roof. Graveline thought open-air would make it more difficult for the state to get financially involved, because it could not be used year-round for other making-money events, like an enclosed facility can.
Why should public money be involved at all?
Graveline said he knows the NFL “makes money by the billions.” At the same time, he said, Atlanta benefits from having pro football here.
“There should be a balance between the public and private that doesn’t overburden the taxpayer,” he said. “There are lots of models. I don’t have the perfect answer.”
What needs to get done to attract convention revenue?
“We have to make downtown the vital heart of Atlanta and deal with infrastructure, crime, panhandling,” he said. Otherwise, more of our convention business will go to competitors like Orlando, New Orleans, Dallas, Chicago, New York, D.C., and the big kahuna, Las Vegas.
Despite the addition of attractions next to Centennial Park, such as the fish tank and Coke museum, “we’re still not as exciting as New York and Las Vegas,” he said. So, “Atlanta has got to be clean, safe and friendly.”
I wonder if the two mayoral candidates read this column.
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