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MURPHY: Tennis center gets shot to show what it's worth

It was 1996 when Andre Agassi won gold at center court of the Stone Mountain Tennis Center. A lot has changed at the Olympic venue since.

It's odd that the multimillion-dollar facility that welcomed the world a mere 14 years ago now has people wondering if it is worth saving.

That's exactly what the Evermore Community Improvement District wants to find out via an $80,000 study of the value and possibilities.

The tennis facility has had a checkered past since the Olympics. Several attempts to make use of the venue failed. From tennis tournaments to concerts — Roberta Flack once appeared — nothing worked. Ownership passed to next-door neighbor Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which couldn't make the 25-acre property profitable. The association then leased the property to Gwinnett County for a buck a year. The plan was to raze the stadium and turn the acreage with its 26 tennis courts into a passive park. The $2 million cost to destroy the stadium, however, delayed things long enough to catch the eye of the CID.

Evermore's idea isn't just to save the stadium, but to repurpose it as one component of a much grander revitalization that would turn the area into a live-work-play community.

"It's not just about saving the stadium. It's more like transforming it in a way that will benefit the entire area," said David Stedman, director of economic development for the CID.

With the right purpose, the stadium complex could play a pivotal role in resurrecting the maturing neighborhood.

This stretch of U.S. Highway 78 from the DeKalb line to Snellville has seen better days. Next to the vacated tennis complex sits an recently closed Target store. Nearby is an abandoned plane runway. Businesses along this major artery into Atlanta struggled before and after the road's reversible lane era. That's why the CID formed in 2002.

Evermore will match a recently awarded $40,000 grant to fund the $80,000 study. Results are expected in May, and then the CID will know if the complex can serve as a catalyst for the area.

So will the study unearth a viable purpose for the venue? The future could bring concerts or athletic tournaments. A roof — or a retractable roof — could be added to the open-air, 7,200-seat structure, greatly expanding its possibilities. Or will the study reveal no viable options for the stadium?

"No one wants another failure," Stedman said, referring to past attempts to put the stadium to good use. But the CID staff and board believe the preservation and renaissance of the stadium is worth exploring.

"It's hard to believe a $26 million facility has no use other than to implode it. We are going to take a look at that before it's too late," CID Executive Director Jim Brooks said.

Even before the study is complete, the CID will do its part to bring some activity to the once-chain-linked-and-locked facility by moving its offices into a building in the complex. The board will hold its first meeting there Feb. 24.

Evermore is taking the right approach. No. 1, it saved the stadium from the wrecking ball in the hopes it can be a tool in the CID's arsenal. No. 2, CID officials are going into the study with an open mind. This is not a Save the Stadium campaign. If the study finds no feasible use, the wrecking ball will be back in motion.

But Director Brooks makes a valid point when he says surely the lifespan of a stadium should be longer than a 10-day Olympic run.

Preservation is preferable to destruction. Here's to hoping the CID finds justification to preserve the Stone Mountain courts.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.