Opportunity Lost – Centennial Olympic Park

Despite looking like one, Centennial Olympic Park is not a public park. COP is an open-aired convention space with a park-like theme, that when not rented, the public is allowed to traverse. COP does not serve at the pleasure of the Atlanta tax payer. COP is operated by the Georgia World Congress Center, GWCC.

Since the park’s inception, in 1996, the city of Atlanta has developed all around it. The newly developed Centennial neighborhood isn’t anything like it was 20 years ago and it will surely be very different in another 20 years. But, regardless of physical changes, this neighborhood will always be known as the gateway for our town’s visitors.

COP is located next door to our leading tourist attractions as well as being between downtown hotels and the Congress Center convention facility. For millions of our guests every year, COP is oftentimes the only impression of Atlanta they get. Given this, it’s clearly in the City’s best interest to ensure COP puts Atlanta’s best foot forward. But, is the GWCC actually doing this and, more importantly, are they the ones who should be chartered with such a task?

Recently the GWCC announced their plans for significantly updating the 20+ year-old park/facility. To many, this gave rise to the hope of finally losing a lot of Park’s phony Olympic crap. But, unfortunately the GWCC plan not only calls for keeping our unnecessary statuary, it significantly ups the Olympic ante.

Speaking ill of the Olympics in Atlanta comes with risk. It’s foolish to downplay or minimize what the Olympics have meant. We get it; it was a big deal. But, as a city, do we really want to continue to ONLY be defined to our guests and visitors by one single 3 week event? Isn’t there room for a larger story?

When the park/facility was established, in 1996, the city needed to create a finished product. They had 21 acres to fill. To take up space and give the facility a more finished look, designers borrowed from the then popular “Quilting” theme to create their Quilt of Nations, Quilt of Olympic Spirit, Quilt of Origins, Quilt of Remembrance and the Quilt of Dreams. (We are not making these names up) The “quilt” statues dominate the landscape on the park’s eastern edge.

These contrived Atlanta, “Olympic Quilts”, have no meaning to the Olympic experience, have no meaning to Atlanta and other than sharing a theme, have no relation to the AIDs epidemic. (The last time the National AIDs Quilt was displayed in its entirety was also the summer 1996)

Updating public facilities is usually a once in a generation event. Atlanta has lived with these unnecessary statues long enough. Why should another generation of visitors be subjected to relics of a bad idea? Can’t we do better? Couldn’t we say more?

The City of Atlanta hires Public Relations professionals to, “always be selling”. COP represents a truly unique and wonderful 21 acre sales canvas. Unfortunately, the critical role of messaging the park was outsourced to the Conventioneers. And, while they may be responsible for the operation of one of the finest facilities of its kind in America, it doesn’t mean they are well positioned in the skill set required for today’s more liquid forms of communications and messaging. In short, the GWCC phoned it in.

If the park didn’t have these sculptures, they could use the space to tell a story, evoke a feeling or simply represent something meaningful. Almost anything would be an improvement. Grass, an azalea; heck, plant an actual peach tree.

When our guests visit Centennial Olympic Park, they see “torches”, rings and plenty of plaques. They can’t escape the Olympic connection. History is what it is. But, who says time has to stop? Can’t the park grow?

Sadly, those responsible for the branding and updating of the park have opted to double down on the Olympic theme for no other reason than it was easy. No one sincerely believes there was a public groundswell calling for more Olympic tchotchke. But that is exactly what future generations will be tasked with getting rid of.

Please note, we are making NONE of this up. The new COP plan calls for commemorative markers for the 100M Dash, Men’s and Woman’s Shotput, Discus and Long Jump. There will be 3 new Medal Podiums plus another new Torch. A “Sport Gallery” will be created highlighting among other things, a bar bell and a canoe. There is also an area dedicated to a series of long sticks in the ground meant to represent, the “Pole Vault Sculptures”.

Before you can say, “who cares” about this stuff, please know the Olympics aren’t what they used to be. Financially, logistically, and now from a security standpoint, the Olympics have become a concept whose lifespan is on the horizon. Yet the GWCC has decided for the City, that COP will continue to be dedicated solely to the 1996 Olympic story.

Olympic commemoratives are a lot like personal accessories. A little goes a very long way. Too much, and it looks cheap. COP is often referred to Atlanta’s downtown “crown jewel”. And when you look at her, she really is a pretty space. It’s a real shame the city has spent so little time noticing or caring how she dresses!

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