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DeKalb County commissioners disagree about location of convention center

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DeKalb County commissioners disagree about location of convention center

DeKalb County Government Manuel J. Maloof Center in downtown Decatur. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — A recent study shows the ideal location for a convention center is in the northern part of the county, where commissioners say it is needed the least.

The feasibility study presented to the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners in June identified Dekalb-Peachtree Airport as a location that could support retail, hotels, infrastructure and access to transportation.

DeKalb County has been sorely lacking a facility of this kind, said consultants from CH Johnson, a firm out of Chicago brought in by Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, Tucker Northlake CID and Discover DeKalb.

The cost is estimated at $140 million for a convention center and parking.

Commissioners Mereda Davis-Johnson and Ted Terry objected to adding a convention center to north DeKalb. Terry said the lack of a clear transportation plan is a problem. Another site under consideration is on Memorial Drive near the Kensington MARTA station.

“There’s an assumption about arterial rapid transit or bus rapid transit along Buford Highway, but as of now, there’s no funding to do more than a light touch. That still seems years away, whereas the Memorial Drive site already has two Marta stations,” said Terry. “There are things afoot and progress happening on Memorial Drive.”

Davis-Johnson said central DeKalb has better access to highways and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. She added concerns about the lack of diversity on the consulting team.

“I would like to see more minority dialogue and participation in this project,” she said.

Ryan Johnson, principal and lead of convention and hospitality practice with CH Johnson, said the study began with seven potential locations. Current venues within the county are unable to meet the growing demand to host small to mid-sized events ranging in size from 500 to 2,500 attendees, including events like high school graduations.

The study indicated DeKalb County can support a 50,000 sq. ft. multipurpose hall, 25,000 sq. ft. ballroom and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting rooms. The convention center will serve local, regional and national meetings and events. Johnson proposed a campus with a convention center, a hotel, an aviation museum, a cultural center, office space, greenspace, a ballroom and a black box theater.

Johnson said over a recent four-year period, DeKalb County lost out on 146 large events, equating to 586 event days and 53,888 hotel room rentals.

“You’re losing your own events to other buildings and surrounding markets. National and regional event planners want to be in DeKalb County. They like the CDC, the higher education concentration, the media and film industry presence,” Johnson said.

Terry said since the June 2021 kickoff, “everything in between has been a complete black hole to me” citing the lack of communication on the study. He said the metrics and analysis behind the study may be correct, but if there’s an imbalance in the input from stakeholders, the data will be skewed.

“This is like the tail wagging the dog,” said Terry. “I don’t know how we have a more balanced approach.”

Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson said the study was conducted to provide a baseline.

“Experts who have conducted this type of research and develop these types of facilities [do so] globally, not just in the United States. I would ask that we take the information that we’ve been given and we take the time to dissect it,” said Cochran-Johnson, adding the study engaged hundreds of professionals who are responsible for the scheduling, booking and planning of conferences and destination events.

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