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DISPATCH FROM ATLANTA

Underground reimagined with focus on gambling

A proposal to revive the tourist attraction with a casino and a luxury hotel pits liberal city officials against Georgia's conservative leadership.

March 22, 2009|Richard Fausset

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 had actually 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."

This 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 a year. Concerns about its performance have only risen 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 African American 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, an African 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 Democrat, has long dreamed of a casino at Underground, but casino gambling is prohibited by the Georgia Constitution. Amending it would require, among other things, a two-thirds majority from a Legislature dominated by socially conservative Republicans.

This year, however, city officials, including Democratic Mayor Shirley Franklin, are putting their faith in a work-around plan. At its core is a proposal to outfit an Underground casino with video lottery terminals. Similar to video slot machines, the VLTs, as they are known in the gambling industry, would technically be instruments of Georgia's statewide lottery.

As a result, proponents say, the plan would not require legislative approval, but a majority vote from the state's seven-member lottery board.

That, however, may only gain them a marginal advantage, because each member of the lottery board was appointed by Perdue -- a teetotaling Baptist from central Georgia's Houston County who, according a spokesman, has "multiple" concerns about a casino at Underground.

The spokesman, Bert Brantley, said the gambling issue is one of many that are informed by Perdue's Christian faith.

"I think the people of Georgia, who've voted for him twice, have clearly seen that he's a religious person," Brantley said. " . . . There's probably no issue that you could pick out that's not somewhat based on his belief system."

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" that could give convention-goers and downtown office workers a reason to stay downtown at night.

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 $56 million in outstanding debts.

Proponents also argue 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. A devout Christian, he wasn't impressed by the casino plan. He mostly feared that working-class visitors would gamble so much that they wouldn't have money left over for snacks.

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