Underground rebound?

Atlanta councilman has a plan to boost Underground

For years, the UNSPOKEN truth about Underground Atlanta has been that if you are a native, you avoid it.

It's our Ruby Falls. Our Wall Drug. It's an attraction that means more to people from out of town than it does to people inside the perimeter.

After all, if it's mall shopping you want, the metro area has plenty from which to choose — Lenox, Phipps, Perimeter, etc. The list goes on and on and on, but just about every other option available to metro shoppers is safer, cleaner and has more to choose from than Underground. Moreover, the center has lost three of its major draws — Gap, Eddie Bauer and Victoria's Secret stores — in recent years and now faces the loss of the nearby Coke museum which is responsible for much of its tourist business. The center of downtown appears to be shifting toward Centennial Olympic Park where a new aquarium is slated to be built and the World of Coca-Cola is supposed to relocate.

But Post 3 Atlanta City Councilman H. Lamar Willis wants to revive Underground's fortunes ... again. Willis plans to submit legislation to the City Council within the next few weeks that would create a new entertainment district designation for Underground that would permit patrons to carry open alcohol containers inside the facility. He also wants to entice clubs and restaurants to Underground by reducing the city's alcohol tax for businesses willing to locate there. The idea is to create an entertainment district that can draw tourists and convention-goers, who have little to choose from in the way of entertainment at the city's hotel-thick core.

Willis hasn't finalized his proposal, but he's talked to a number of local groups — the Atlanta Hotel Council, the Atlanta Convention and Visitor's Bureau and Central Atlanta Progress, for example — and has gotten positive feedback so far. Last Thursday, he broached the idea with Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

Willis admits that relaxing open container laws, so that patrons can wander from venue to venue inside the mall, may be a tough sell, but he thinks there's a way to make it happen and keep Underground safe.

"Now, I'm not sure that citizens will buy into the fact that Upper Alabama [Street] should be open container," Willis says. "It's an open and public area. Underground Atlanta and all parties involved would have to come up with a very different way to make that palatable. You'd need to have someone monitoring people coming in and out, making sure they're not leaving, walking up Peachtree Street with a daiquiri."

A representative from O'Leary Partners, which currently operates Underground Atlanta, did not return repeated phone calls.

As for the tax credits, Willis sees it as a way to get Underground off the city's back. Atlanta sold $85 million in revenue bonds during the 1980s to renovate the facility. When Underground exceeds a certain profit level, the excess is supposed to be used to pay down the bonds. The problem is, Underground has never made enough money. So Willis' plan is simple: More businesses beget more customers, which beget more money, which relieves the burden for city taxpayers.

Willis' proposed legislation also would coincide with Franklin's recent efforts to crack down on aggressive panhandling and tackle the homelessness problem in the downtown.

Joe Martin, who helped arrange the financing for the re-opening of Underground in 1989, and was intimately involved in the project, doubts the facility needs to soften alcohol rules. "I'm afraid that relaxing the open container restrictions could lead to some undesirable consequences," Martin says. Instead, he suggests doing the same thing that he's been talking about for years. "Insist that MARTA clean up the Five Points station," Martin says. "It's so raggedy that it sends an 'anything goes' message that spills over into the entire area."

Of course, it seems like there's a new plan to revitalize Underground every few years. When the facility re-opened in 1989, it did robust business until violence stemming from the 1992 Rodney King riots scared off customers, Martin says. Business dropped by 40 percent between May 1991 and May 1992.

Underground enjoyed something of a renaissance during the city's Olympic era, but then business trailed off again. In 1999, Underground's operations were sold to its current group, and the new company lured tenants into vacant storefronts on Upper Alabama Street.

Still, the area surrounding the mall often looks more like a center for the underground economy instead of the beehive of mainstream commerce it's supposed to be. On a recent afternoon, across the street from the above-ground entrance to the shopping area, packs of young black men — the kind typically unpopular with the suburban set — milled about in what could be a ready-made FUBU commercial, as street vendors hawked their merchandise.

The mall itself crawled with people, though only a few carried shopping bags. The crowd was overwhelmingly black, maybe 85 percent to 90 percent, and most of the white customers, easy to spot in shorts and fanny packs, all seemed to be tourists.

The one sort-of native Atlantan interviewed by Creative Loafing came to Underground at the insistence of a friend from out of town. Tuan, from Dunwoody, admitted there isn't much at the mall that you couldn't find at an airport trinket shop.

Ernest Stafford, the general manager of Mick's restaurant in Underground, came back to the Upper Alabama Street location after having managed other stores during the last two years. Before he left, Mick's was doing $50,000 in business every week "easy." Now, it's down to $35,000-$40,000 per week, he said. "There's not really a night crowd."

And that's why Willis thinks his idea makes sense.

"The reason you have to think about this is that right now, Underground Atlanta is floundering," he says.