In the wake of the collapse of the Revel development, local officials have one message for Gwinnett residents: Don’t look at the news that North American Properties is pulling out of the project as a statement on the viability of the Gwinnett market.
The announcement earlier this week that North American was pulling out of the Revel project sent shockwaves through the county considering the amount of hype that the developer had built around the project. It is one of two projects in metro Atlanta that North American, which is known for its Avalon development in Alpharetta, has pulled out of in recent weeks amid a shakeup in the company’s focus and leadership.
That shakeup, which includes North American getting out of the business of building new mixed-use developments from the ground up, is what caused Revel to fall apart, according to local officials.
“This is 100% a North American reorg and revisioning of what that company is going to do and they have pulled out of multiple, multi-billion dollar projects, all of which have in common greenfield development,” Gwinnett Chamber president Nick Masino said.
Now that North American is no longer working on Revel, the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau’s plan is to step back briefly and work on getting some other projects at the Infinite Energy Center underway before revisiting plans for a mixed-use development at the convention and event venue.
Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Preston Williams said there will be a waiting period of two to three months before the CVB goes back to working on finding a development partner to put together a mixed-use development at the site.
That will give bureau officials time to get through the holidays as well as the groundbreakings for the Westin hotel at the center in January and Infinite Energy Forum’s convention space expansion, which is tentatively set for late February.
“We still think it’s a very viable project, not purely as a mixed-use retail as much as it is a mixed-use entertainment district center,” Williams said. “We’ve always thought that and everything we’ve researched, everything we’ve tried to explore in regards to the viability of it lends itself that that’s the right direction to go.”
Masino said he believes the Infinite Energy Center still offers a good opportunity for mixed-use development.
“There’s nothing but opportunity,” the chamber president said. “There will be a much larger list of impressive developers now that the (overall Infinite Energy Center) plan has been fully developed.”
Gwinnett Commission chairwoman Charlotte Nash told state legislators this week that there is still interest in the site from the development community. The county owns the three parts that make up the Infinite Energy Center — the arena, forum and theater — and is using special purpose local option sales tax funds to pay for the expansion of the convention space in the forum.
The county also recently opened the first of two new parking decks at the center and the second one is expected to open this month.
“I can tell you we’ve already had a number of contacts from private sector firms that are interested in pursuing that,” Nash said.
Williams said the fact that construction on the hotel and convention center is about to get underway puts the CVB is in a better position to attract interest in the project than it was a few years ago when North American was brought in.
The hotel will be just under a dozen stories tall with a rooftop bar and have 347 rooms, according to Williams. Meanwhile, the convention center expansion is expected to make it possible for the Infinite Energy Forum to compete for larger conventions.
“We’re not talking (about it), we’re doing it,” Williams said. “We see that as a plus ... It demonstrates that we’re doing what we said we’re going to do and we think it’s going to motivate any interested parties to be involved in such a good project.”
As for what happened with North American, in addition to pulling out of Revel, the company’s shakeup has also seen Mark Toro, the face of the company in metro Atlanta as its local leader, moved to a new position as chairman of its Board of Directors.
Meanwhile, the company will focus on acquiring existing mixed-use properties and building ground-up residential development properties instead of developing sprawling mixed-use developments such as Revel from scratch.
“I certainly believe (the Revel situation) is a direct result of the restructuring of North American and it is absolutely no reflection on the viability of the project,” Williams said. “We’ve got the type of environment and the venues and atmosphere that probably even some of those (mixed-use developments) that have been successful didn’t have going in.”
As the Gwinnett CVB moves forward on new mixed-use plans, Williams said it will have the benefit of the learning curve it went through with North American.
The CVB leader said Revel was “pretty close” to what the county’s tourism officials wanted to see done with the site, but he also said the ideal project will likely be somewhere between Avalon and The Battery development at SunTrust Park in Cobb County.
Some concepts from Revel could get recycled into the new plan as well.
“I think at the event of the day, it’s probably going to have some look or form similar to what (North American was) taking,” Williams said. “We learned an awful lot the last two-and-a half or three years working with them as well and they were great to work with.
“Unfortunately it worked out the way it did, but at the end of the day, I think we’re a lot more prepared and knowledgeable about the next direction we’re going to go in.”