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Millions of Tourists, Shoppers Look Beneath the Surface to Discover Heart of Atlanta

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Six months after opening, Underground is the new mandatory stop on the Atlanta tour.

Atlantans are bringing their relatives. Yuppies from around the Southeast have integrated it into their weekend visits. Tourists and conventioneers ask for directions to it as soon as they get to town.

“I think it’s kind of a tourist trap, but it’s something your out-of-town guests want to see,” said Atlanta resident Mary Van Ehrlich. “You take them to the top of the Regency (Hotel), you take them to Stone Mountain and now you take them to Underground Atlanta. It’s one of the expected stops.”

Since the shopping and entertainment complex opened June 15, as many as 7 million people have trekked to Underground, said general manager William M. Coleman.

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Initial figures show only about 40%--far less than the 70% projected--are from outside metropolitan Atlanta, Coleman said.

The proportion of locals to out-of-towners, however, is expected to drop during the traditional post-Christmas retail slump this winter, which is also a time when Atlanta will have its biggest conventions in town.

But no matter where they are from, those who venture into Underground--created in old storefronts that were once the heart of Atlanta before a network of bridges over the railroad tracks literally raised downtown one level--are spending an average of $35 apiece, Coleman said.

Gross sales volume for the 76 shops and pushcarts, about 22 food court vendors and 17 restaurants and nightclubs reached about $36 million through November, about 20% above projections for the Rouse Co. project. Rouse is the same company that developed Boston’s trendy Faneuil Hall shopping area and Baltimore’s Harborplace.

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“It’s very good. But December will tell the tale because it’s such an important month for retailers,” Coleman said.

Although none of the original shops has gone out of business, three nightclubs already have filed for reorganization in federal bankruptcy court--a development Coleman attributed to management problems and not sales volume.

Some of the fast food vendors also have complained that their sales have dropped since the summer boom, although other merchants say they had expected a slump in September and October.

“I believe what is happening at Underground Atlanta is normal--especially when many of the food operators there have little experience,” said retail analyst Neil Thall.

“I see nothing indicative of a general problem with Underground. It takes a while for retailers at a large center like this to shake down,” said Thall, director of retail services with Kurt Salmon Associates. “Underground looks pretty healthy to me.”

That’s how it looks to Ken Piotrowski, owner of the Christmas Factory, and Dante Stephensen, owner of Dante’s Down The Hatch--both veteran Georgia businessmen whose shops are doing considerably better than they had expected.

“I’m doing 2 1/2 times the business I expected,” said Stephensen, whose nightclub-restaurant was one of the most popular in the original Underground Atlanta, a complex that closed in the mid-1970s after a decline blamed on petty crimes and transit system construction.

Stephensen said he based his projections on graphs he kept during the 11 years he operated in old Underground.

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“Everything boomed in June, July and August. But we knew it wouldn’t continue,” he said. “But the figures have eased back above projections for everyone, assuming people made good projections.”

Piotrowski has been surprised by the amount of money people are willing to spend in Underground and at his shop, which features imported Christmas tree ornaments and decorations.

“There are some very, very wealthy people walking around. We’ve had people walk into the store and spend $2,000, no problem,” he said, adding that many of his customers are international tourists and conventioneers.


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