ATLANTA — If you donate it, will they come?
The Hawks certainly expect so after offering to transform State Farm Arena into a voting precinct for the fall elections to make a smooth experience for registered Fulton County residents and the city.
Suddenly, a spacious basketball arena that was supposed to be dark in fall — the revamped 2020-21 NBA season tentatively isn’t scheduled to begin until late November — will be transformed into an election epicenter that city and county officials say is sorely needed.
The 700,000 square-foot arena will resolve a variety of issues mostly caused by COVID-19 and the need for safety and distancing measures, starting with early voting on July 20 for the runoff election on August 11. Fulton County Registration and Elections will also make the arena its central operations site for absentee ballot processing and vote tabulations.
In this partnership, the Hawks and Atlanta hope similar reactions in other cities will be launched as a result.
This is the brainchild of Hawks CEO Steve Koonin and was inspired by recent social justice protests and equality rallies in the city. Koonin was especially moved by the surge of voices among young people, a group that in the past represented the lowest amount of registered voters in elections.
Koonin said: “If nothing came out of this protest to create change, then we all failed.”
The Hawks seized the chance to enhance their community involvement, and since their home court wasn’t scheduled to be used for games or concerts or other canceled events because of the coronavirus, the idea was floated for it to serve another and perhaps greater purpose.
City officials pounced and the partnership was instantly formed. The Hawks will help retrofit the arena, offer free parking to those voters who can’t or won’t use public transportation, and train their own employees to serve as workers — some of whom are expected to be players and front office officials as well.
We aim to be a community asset, and in order to fulfill that goal, we need to be more than just a basketball team.”
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin
Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, who has been active with his voice and efforts in the city and community during the last month, was onboard instantly.
“I’m excited and our players are excited and we will use this opportunity to engage with our community,” Pierce said. “We want to be the model for voting and making this a reality and leading the charge to get the rest of our country voting.”
With the virus still causing overhauls in how public places operate, Koonin said he had safety in mind with regard to State Farm Arena.
“That was our No. 1 priority moving forward and we should be able to do this with ease,” Koonin said. “In October, we will provide a spacious and safe and secure environment that will be good for social distancing. We will be able to stagger according to CDC regulations. We’ll keep people moving through quickly. All staff will be in masks and there will be hand sanitizers throughout the building.This is not a library. This is a giant building with great connectivity.”
The Hawks and other NBA teams have heightened their community awareness levels in light of social events nationwide and the organization sought ways to assist Atlanta on multiple levels. The importance of registering to vote was a topic that Koonin, Pierce and chairman Tony Ressler discussed. The city and county have had their issues on that subject in the past and Koonin saw an opening for the Hawks to assist with the polling process.
“If we want change,” Koonin said, “it starts at the polls.”
It’s certainly a first for an NBA arena to be used as a polling center and city officials wondered if State Farm Arena would serve as the largest such place in the country.
“This will be a super duper location for Fulton County, and in fact will become our election central,” said Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts. “This addition of State Farm Arena as an early voting location will enhance the voting experience of our citizens. We will go from the proverbial `worst’ to first in November as a result of this collaboration.”
It’s still to be determined how many machines will be used in the arena and other details, but organizers believe those will be resolved rapidly. The Hawks have laid the groundwork and foundation, which means the heavy lifting is already done.
“We aim to be a community asset, and in order to fulfill that goal, we need to be more than just a basketball team,” Koonin said.