Hall hoping to open new building in 2012

ATLANTA -- Plagued by low attendance in South Bend, the College Football Hall of Fame hopes to get a boost in visitors after it moves to a new $50 million facility next to Centennial Olympic Park.

Hall of Fame officials held a news conference Thursday to formally announce the move to downtown Atlanta. A new building will be constructed alongside the park and is projected to open in summer 2012, within walking distance of popular tourist attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola.

Chick-fil-A and the Atlanta bowl game that bears the company's name each agreed to kick in $5 million for the project. The state and the city also will contribute, with the remaining funds being raised privately.

Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, acknowledged the challenge of raising money in a struggling economy, but pointed out that contributors would be able to spread out their pledges over three years. Plus, there are signs that the worst of the recession is over.

"We've got to believe that the economy is coming back," Stokan said. "We feel like 2010, 2011 and 2012 will be better years."

Stokan said four sites are under consideration, all adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park, which was built as a gathering spot for the 1996 Atlanta Games and is now the centerpiece of efforts to revitalize downtown. The park already is bordered on the north side by the aquarium, the Coke exhibit and a children's museum. Also on the drawing board is the Museum for Civil & Human Rights, which hopes to open in 2011.

"We have fish, we've got beverages ... we've got civil rights, and now we've got college football," Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said.

The hall failed to draw big crowds after moving from Ohio to South Bend, Ind., in 1995 to take advantage of the proximity to Notre Dame. Supporters predicted it would attract more than 150,000 visitors a year, but it drew about 115,000 people the first year and about 60,000 annually after that.

"We should get a lot more people drifting in instead of visitors who are strictly destination oriented," said Steve Hatchell, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation, which operates the hall.

Stokan pointed out that some 2 million sports fans attend sporting events each year at the nearby Georgia Dome and Philips Arena, and Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium is less than two miles away. The aquarium has drawn more than 10 million visitors since its opening in 2005.

"We've been working since before the Olympics to make the center of activities for families and visitors in our city," said Franklin, who is nearing the end of her eight years in office. "This hall will be the jewel in our crown as we continue along that journey."

Among those attending the news conference at a restaurant in trendy Buckhead were former Georgia coach Vince Dooley and ex-Florida State star Ron Simmons, both members of the Hall of Fame.

"This is a great move," Dooley said. "Maybe it should have been made 10 or 15 years ago, but at least it's coming now."

Stokan said a site for the museum, as well as the designers and architects, will be announced before the end of the year. Groundbreaking will take place next spring, with construction scheduled to take about two years.

"We're setting our sights real high," said Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, which already is heavily involved in college sports and plans to step up its commitment with the Hall of Fame. "We truly want to make this a world-class destination, like we saw with the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coke. We're already scouring the country going to museums and working with topflight architects and designers."

Meanwhile, the National Football Foundation has not decided what to do with the soon-to-be-abandoned facility in Indiana. The lease agreement runs through the end of 2010.

"I don't know how long we'll stay open," Hatchell said. "We'll have to see how it goes with South Bend."