Bill Torpy at Large: In College Park, another fast break for the Hawks

I’ve got to hand it to the Atlanta Hawks. The team has never hoisted a championship trophy, but it this year pulled off the public financing trifecta — it got taxpayers to help fund facilities in Brookhaven, Atlanta and now College Park.

The most recent achievement, announced last week, has the city of College Park building an arena for the Hawk’s developmental league team, a concept similar to baseball’s minor leagues, but with real tall guys in short pants.

The cost for the 3,500-seat arena, which would be part of the Georgia International Convention Center near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, is somewhere between $10 million and $40 million, according to College Park City Manager Terrence Moore. Yeah, I know, that’s kind of a wide range. Details are still being worked out.

The deals demonstrate why owner Tony Ressler is a billionaire. Earlier this month the city of Atlanta pledged to kick in $142.5 million to the Hawks’ $50 million to fix up Philips Arena which is 17 years old. The deal prevents the Hawks from being the third major professional sports team to leave Atlanta during Mayor Kasim Reed’s time in office.

And earlier this year, the Hawks inked a deal with Brookhaven to spend $36 million building a practice facility and get a net $6.5 million tax abatement.

But while College Park officials don’t yet know how much the arena will cost, they do know what the D-League Hawks will be paying — $5,000 per game in rent. That works out to $180,000 if the team plays the 36 games a season listed on the revenue analysis sheet.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of money in the NBA universe. In fact, that kind of dough falls out of players’ pockets during pickup games.

I did a cocktail napkin analysis: Hawks star Dwight Howard makes $23.2 million per annum and will play perhaps 2,625 minutes this year, meaning he’ll earn $8,838 per playing minute. Put another way, the (real) Hawks only get 20 minutes of Dwight on the court for $180,000 but a whole year of an arena. This smells like a sweet deal.

The Hawks, not surprisingly, are tickled by the agreement. They no longer have to send their prospects to other cities for seasoning.

“It’s huge,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer gushed after the announcement. “I feel like we’ve flown guys to the moon to get them to a D-League game.”

Now they can give them MARTA cards.

City Manager Moore pushed back at my theory that the Hawks got a steal. He said the team is just one component of a long-planned expansion of the 400,000-square foot convention center, second-largest center in the state.

“They are one of a number of tenants (who are) part of a vibrant, successful multi-purpose facility,” he said.

City officials figure the new arena can attract concerts, beauty pageants, cheerleader competitions and comedy shows to fill up the seats when the junior Hawks aren’t dribbling.

When I mentioned that the convention business is cut-throat and the concert biz is even worse, Moore said, “This is the only convention center connected to the world’s busiest airport.”

My advice: Get loud bands. Their music will drown out the airplanes.

‘The same kind of thing Tim Lee did’

Building an arena or performing arts center is increasingly a must for counties and cities around metro Atlanta. It helps put a there there, and College Park has struggled for years to get on the map for something good.

Google the terms “College Park” and “crime rate” and you’ll be reaching for your Ruger. (Although a new police chief has helped beat down the rate.)

The old railroad stop has a quaint downtown and pleasant old-timey historic district. But the town has struggled for decades to overcome th twin body blows of white flight and airport expansion. In 1980, the population was 24,000. It’s 14,600 now.

Residents who have toiled for years to fix up the town are split on whether D-League basketball and concerts will bring the mojo back.

John Duke, an ecologist and resident of 18 years, figures the money should be spent on other things — for instance, job training for a large unemployable population.

Duke, a city booster, drove me around, showing off new restaurants, an old railroad converted to a walking path and rows of trees that he planted on city streets. He thinks the convention center and MARTA have been a boon to the city. He just doesn’t like this deal.

“Isn’t this the same kind of thing Tim Lee did, saying ‘we’ll build this’ and not asking anybody?” he asked, referring to Cobb County’s chairman who gave the Braves a Brinks truck full of cash to entice them to move from Atlanta. Lee got beat badly this summer in his bid for re-election. The Braves open up in their new park next spring.

‘The city was clinically depressed’

For four decades, Jane Randolph has lived in a home built in 1918. She helped turn her neighborhood into a historic district to protect it from an airport expansion in the 1990s. The expansions “took away social, political and economic capital in a big way,” she said. “A friend who’s a psychologist said, ‘I think the city was clinically depressed.’”

She and others galvanized the community to turn away the last airport expansion and she said lots of new families have moved into the city and are renovating old houses. “In College Park, a status symbol is having a dumpster in your front yard,” she said.

Mrs. Randolph kind of likes the plan. “I think it’s a wonderful way to increase revenue,” she said. “It can attract people from out of town.”

Gwendolyn Gillespie, a lifelong resident, thinks the arena could have a good impact but has a streak of suspicion.

“I’m not a hater but my concern is what are you going to do with the money?” Gillespie said. “How will it trickle down to the community? Who’s going to benefit?”

Questions, I assume, that residents will be asking city fathers in upcoming weeks.

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