Khalil Johnson was the Georgia Dome’s general manager when it opened, so he’s a bit partial to the place. No longer affiliated with the Dome — he retired as the Georgia World Congress Center’s chief operating officer last summer — he remains one of the most respected men in his industry. And here’s what he thinks of the Falcons’ desire to build an open-air stadium where (or near) the Dome sits: Not much.
“I love football and I love the Falcons,” Johnson said. “If they need and desire a new stadium, let the owner build it himself. In this current situation, to use tax dollars isn’t viable.”
Also this: “They’re having discussions of whether [an open-air stadium would cost] less than half a billion or more than half a billion. At the same time we’re closing schools, we’ve got transportation issues and we need to figure out Grady [Hospital] … It’s not a sports question. It’s an economic issue. There are a lot more pressing needs.”
Arthur Blank bought the Falcons in 2002, a decade after the Dome opened, and has been persistent in his desire that the building be updated. Johnson worked to placate the owner but knew the day would come when Blank would want a new building.
Said Johnson, who now works out of Douglasville as a consultant regarding events and venues: “What’s the pressing need? More money for the ownership. I don’t know how that lines up with what the public wants … I just question whether the public needs to give more when most of the benefits will go to a private owner.”
About the Dome, Johnson said: “It may not be a great building but it’s a damn good building. And improvements can be made … The bones of Georgia Dome are good. Ask anybody in the business, and they’ll tell you that. It would make more economic sense to improve the Georgia Dome.”
The Falcons’ desire for an open-air stadium — one without a retractable roof, which team president Rich McKay told the AJC would be too expensive — would seem at odds with the Dome’s charter. The Falcons believe an open-air stadium would help Atlanta’s chances of playing host to games in soccer’s World Cup in 2018 or 2022, but the Dome has already staged two NCAA Final Fours and is ticketed for another in 2013.
And what of the ACC and SEC basketball tournaments, both of which have been played beneath the Dome’s roof? What of the SEC football championship and the Chick-fil-A Bowl, each held between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day?
“I don’t think the Falcons care much about basketball games,” Johnson said. As for college football: “The [SEC] tried [playing outdoors] in Birmingham. Didn’t work. Roy Kramer [then the SEC commissioner] came to us and said, ‘I want a stadium with a roof on it.’ And what was the name for the Peach Bowl before it moved indoors? ‘Weather-plagued.’ ”
Would it be possible to build an open-air stadium next to the Dome? Said Johnson: “It makes no sense to me. We know how tight that campus is — you’ve got the GWCC, Philips Arena, a fully functional arena and a park jammed into 220 acres.”
Johnson also questions whether the public would benefit from a new stadium. “People would have to be prepared for higher ticket prices, higher food and beverage prices, higher parking and PSLs [personal seat licenses, which confer the right to buy a ticket].”
But wouldn’t much of the money for a new stadium come, as has been the case with the Dome, from a hotel tax? And doesn’t the hotel tax affect non-Atlantans?
“The Dome gets $20 million a year from the hotel tax,” Johnson said. “What would $20 million do for Atlanta schools or for health care? And the World Congress Center is sitting there aging with no significant resources. Wouldn’t it be sensible to put that money into the Congress Center, which has been the driver for the convention business in Atlanta?”
There’s also this: “The Dome is almost paid off, which means that [hotel tax] money could be put to other use. Why plant a tree, watch it grow and then, when it’s almost grown, cut it down because you see a tree you like better?”
Isn’t there a risk that if the Falcons don’t get what they want downtown, they’ll move? “If Doraville wants to build a stadium, let them take a shot at it,” Johnson said. “But I don’t think the dollars add up. There’s nowhere to move. People aren’t sitting around with half a billion dollars.”
Johnson’s closing argument: “If Atlanta can’t pay for a new stadium, who can? And is there really a need? Again, we’re down to the question of wants versus needs.”