A Vision for a City: 1968 –1977
OMNI INTERNATIONAL Maurice Alpert (left) and Tom Cousins with a model of the Omni International, a mixed-use project in downtown Atlanta. Situated next to Cousins’ Omni Arena, Omni International eventually became CNN Center.
In May 1968, Tom Cousins partnered with former Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders to purchase the St. Louis Hawks basketball franchise and move it to Atlanta. This was the National Basketball Association’s first foray in the Deep South and one of the conditions attached to the sale was the city would back a new arena to house the Hawks. This was also a defining moment for Cousins Properties, when the nascent company would make its first major impact on its hometown.
In 1966, the Company began The Decks, a parking structure over downtown’s rail yards. Across the street from the Decks, Cousins tackled its largest project yet, building The Omni arena – a new home for the Hawks and Atlanta’s first professional hockey team, The Flames (also owned by Tom Cousins). But that was just the beginning for this emerging area of downtown. Adjacent to the Omni, Cousins donated the land for the first phase of the Georgia World Congress Center, which has grown into one of the country’s largest convention spaces. And, as part of the same complex, Cousins financed the Omni International – an expansive project featuring office, entertainment and hotel space that eventually became CNN Center, home to the news network and one of downtown Atlanta’s leading tourist spots.
By the mid-1970s, the revitalization of downtown Atlanta was well underway and Cousins had established itself as a major corporate citizen in the Capital of the New South. But these downtown ventures are only part of the story. During the early 1970s, Cousins expanded rapidly into regional malls, real estate finance, market research and even insurance. With 12 operating divisions and 450 employees, the Company had come a long way in 15 years. The real estate industry was booming and Cousins took advantage. In 1971, the Company delivered Rivergate Mall in Nashville and began development of another golf-anchored community, Hidden Hills. At the time, it was Atlanta’s largest planned-unit development. The next year, it launched Omni International, the Wachovia Bank Building in Charlotte and University Mall in Pensacola. By 1973, it had more than 25 neighborhood shopping centers completed or under development and the Company had developed more than 1.5 million square feet of office space.
Then the bottom fell out. From 1974 to 1977, the real estate industry experienced its worst period since the Great Depression. Cousins, with its expansive development portfolio, was hit particularly hard. But through a combination of debt reduction, halting new development starts and refocusing on core product types like retail and residential, the Company was able to persevere and emerge lean and focused as it headed into the late 1970s.