Updating Atlanta’s Underground: Could casino be in its future?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Richard Fausset
Los Angeles Times
ATLANTA ó Underground Atlanta was hyped as this city’s signature tourist attraction when it opened 20 years ago.
The trendy restaurants and shops of this “festival marketplace” lined six blocks of historic buildings in a unique mini-neighborhood that appeared to thrive underneath the downtown streets.The “underground” streets actually had been covered, in the 1920s, by a series of viaducts that allowed traffic to pass over the bustling trains that were crucial to the young city’s growth.
It was hailed as a vital link to Atlanta’s past, and a fresh start for its moribund downtown. Then-mayor Andrew Young called it Atlanta’s “heart transplant.”
Last week, however, city Councilman Jim Maddox issued a blunt bill of health for the Underground of 2009: “It’s dead,” he said.
“Underground” may remain a well-known name to outsiders, but it has become an albatross for city officials. Maddox said the city was still paying off its lavish face lift from the 1980s, to the tune of $7 million per year. Concerns about its performance have only amplified as Atlanta, like many other big cities, confronts a serious recession-related budget shortfall.
The venue’s problems predate the downturn. Ever since the city restored Underground there were doubts about whether suburban whites would patronize a place in the center of the majority-black city. The mall today attracts a largely black crowd, and it is surrounded by small entrepreneurs that cater to the working class and the hip-hop crowd: a check-cashing place, purveyors of gold teeth and wannabe rap stars hawking their music.
Richard Dunn, 34, a black American and co-owner of three nightclubs at Underground, said that crowds were once more mixed, but that it eventually cemented a reputation as a “black” hangout. “Atlanta is a progressive city in many ways, but it’s still naturally segregated,” Dunn said. “It just is what it is.”
In recent weeks, a new proposal has emerged for saving Underground: reimagining it as a $450-million casino complex, with a new 29-story luxury hotel and a new name. It’s a controversial idea that has tapped another of the region’s defining tensions: the power struggle between liberal city officials and the conservative forces of greater Georgia led by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Maddox, a Democratic city councilman, has long dreamed of a casino at Underground, but casino gambling is prohibited by the Georgia constitution. Amending it would require.
This year, however, city officials are putting their faith in a work-around plan. At its core is a proposal to outfit an Underground casino with so-called “video lottery terminals.” Although similar to video slot machines, the “VLTs,” as they are known in the gambling industry, technically would be instruments of Georgia’s statewide lottery.
One of the chief architects of the casino plan, Dan O’Leary, is co-owner of the private company that operates Underground on the city’s behalf. A casino, he said, would be a “very powerful economic tool.”
O’Leary pointed to a December 2006 consultant’s study prepared for the city that said a 200,000-square-foot casino would create 27,600 direct and indirect jobs, and boost hotel tax receipts by as much as $2.8 million per year.
As part of the deal, his company hopes to purchase the land from the city, which would relieve Atlanta of its $56 million in outstanding debts.
Proponents also, somewhat perversely, make the case that the casino would help children. Georgia’s lottery funds extremely popular programs, including free pre-kindergarten care and the HOPE college scholarship, which pays tuition at state schools for students who maintain a B average in high school.
In and around the mall, vendors and visitors had heard about the plan, and their opinions were mixed. Tony Yohanes, 28, is an African immigrant who operates a tiny cafe about a block away. Yohanes is a devout Christian who wasn’t impressed by the casino plan. He mostly feared that working-class visitors would gamble so much they wouldn’t have money left over for snacks.
On the covered streets of Underground, Marti Hindman of suburban McDonough, Ga., was showing around her sister, Barbara Starkey, who was visiting from Texas. They ambled slowly down a strip of T-shirt and costume jewelry shops. It was Thursday afternoon, and place didn’t seem dead at all ó it was mostly full of black teens.
Hindman was divided on the casino issue. Yes, she said, it might help the city with its debt. But she also worried that it would introduce a new addiction for the many troubled homeless people who haunt downtown.
Hindman, who is white, hadn’t been to Underground in 10 years, and she said the crowd had changed since then. “It’s much more ó how should I say this? Much more urban,” she said. But the black crowd wasn’t what kept her away, she said. It was the lack of a reason to come: They have T-shirt stores back in McDonough.
Her sister insisted on coming here. Her friends in Texas said that when you go to Atlanta, you have to visit Underground.