DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT

Tourism focus of Capitol makeover

Pedestrian-friendly plan faces some concerns over use of state money.

By James Salzer jsalzer@ajc.com and Greg Bluestein gbluestein@ajc.com

The old World of Coca-Cola, the empty state-owned building at the edge of Underground Atlanta, could be the linchpin of a broader plan to remake Capitol Hill into a pedestrian-friendly tourist attraction.Gov. Nathan Deal is weighing whether to put millions of dollars into creating a state history museum at the site, which would also would house exhibits from the state sports and music halls of fame. State officials are also considering whether to turn nearby Mitchell Street into a pedestrian plaza, and an unsightly parking lot into a “protest area.”

The plans were only in the early stages and several different options are being considered, the officials emphasized. But Deal, who toured the museum last week with key staffers, seemed

optimistic about the plan.

“The building was designed to be a museum, and the governor thought it would an ideal location for a history museum if the price were right and the state was able to attract a significant amount of private dollars,” said Brian Robinson, Deal’s spokesman.

The news comes a few weeks after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the state has let the old Coke museum deteriorate since it bought the empty building in 2007. The governor’s interest in the idle building brought immediate support from backers of the proposed museum.

“Telling the state’s history is very important. We have had a hodgepodge of historic preservation for years,” said George Hooks, a member of the University System Board of Regents, a former longtime state lawmaker and an amateur historian. “Having the museum right there on campus is great for tour groups, and for everybody old and young. And this would bring tourism to downtown Atlanta.”

Governors, some lawmakers and history buffs have tried at least twice to fund a state history museum in the Coke building, which the state bought for $1.1 million six years ago. Both times, the Legislature has cut money for the project out of the state budget.

The cost of fixing up the building was set at $17 million in 2011. The governor could include money in next year’s budget to jump-start the project. Deal has generally had little difficulty getting his bond proposals approved by the General Assembly.

“The first thing we need to do is re-evaluate the building and see what kind of condition it is in,” said Paul Melvin of the Georgia Building Authority. “We need a clearer picture of how much it’s going to cost.”

With a state surplus expected to top $600 million next year, lawmakers will have more breathing room to spend money on projects like the museum. But some tea party activists are already raising a red flag.

“This shouldn’t be a top priority,” said Penny Barker of the Pickens County Tea Party. “I hope they put the money in the rainy day fund instead. There are so many other issues out there like rising health costs. This isn’t a good time to be thinking about museums.”

Georgia has no official state history museum. In the past, it has had halls of fame for state golf, music and sports legends in Augusta and Macon, but poor attendance led lawmakers to cut off funding for them a few years ago.

State funding for the Department of Natural Resources’ historic preservation program has dropped 27 percent since 2008. Even with a doubling of federal money for those projects, Georgia spends less than it did five years ago.

Finding exhibits to fill the building shouldn’t be a problem. The state has warehouses and other buildings filled with artifacts — everything from historic documents to Civil War-era weaponry. It also has curiosities like two-headed calves and snakes, along with political campaign relics, arrayed on the fourth floor of the Statehouse.

State officials have eyed the building for a museum site since Coca-Cola shuttered the attraction in 2007 and moved it to a larger facility at Centennial Olympic Park. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed borrowing $15.6 million to convert it into a history museum in 2008, but powerful lawmakers instead used the funds for other priorities.

At the time, the state’s plans also called for closing Mitchell Street next to the Capitol and turning it into a pedestrian plaza, for tearing down the Department of Transportation building at Mitchell and Capitol Avenue and building a parking deck, and for adding a pedestrian bridge over I-75/I-85 to connect a huge lawn area in front of the Capitol with a new park along Memorial Drive. Perdue asked lawmakers for $26.5 million to get the entire project, including the history museum, going.

Most of what was the DOT complex has been torn down and the new parking deck — at a cost of more than $20 million — is expected to open in October. State officials are considering closing Mitchell Street as part of the latest plan, and much of the area between the Capitol and I-75/I-85 that is now a parking lot could be turned into a gathering area for protests. That would keep the state from having to close Washington Street on the other side of the Capitol when large protests or events take place.

Business boosters see the Capitol area overhaul as sorely needed way to help a struggling section of downtown Atlanta. While new hotels and attractions are sprouting up along Centennial Olympic Park, including the College Football Hall of Fame and a recently opened Ferris wheel, the other side of the city’s business district has long struggled.

Underground Atlanta could benefit from the additional foot traffic, said developer Dan O’Leary, whose company has run the attraction since the late 1990s. He’s been searching for ways to make the 12-acre attraction more appealing, and once pitched a plan for NASCAR to build its museum at the site before it settled on Charlotte.

“The bar is set so high nowadays, and you just can’t put a few paintings and artifacts in. It’s got to be interactive and exciting,” he said. “I’ve always felt that if you spread the attractions out a bit throughout downtown, everything in between gets better.”

Whether it will muster enough legislative support is unknown for now. State Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, sounded skeptical. He said lawmakers have too many other financial priorities, which is what they said when Perdue first proposed it in 2008.

“At some point, these are things we might want to do,” Harbin said. “But we have employees who haven’t had raises for eight or nine years. I would love to see this done, but it’s just not the time. I don’t think there will be a lot of support in the General Assembly for it.”