The latest Journal-Constitution poll now measures opposition to a new, $1 billion version of the Georgia Dome – and a new home for the Atlanta Falcons, its chief tenant – at 72 percent of all Georgians.
That level of unpopularity shouldn’t shock you. But you might be surprised by the fact that, despite an approval rating only slightly better than that of Congress, the issue will be very much alive when the Legislature opens this week.
State lawmakers will be asked to approve $300 million in public funding, through a hotel-motel tax on visitors to Atlanta. Mayor Kasim Reed remains confident of success. Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston are less so, but neither has closed the door on the project.
Such a situation is sure to breed cynicism. Politicians doing the bidding of billionaire Falcons-owner Arthur Blank, one jaded voice in your head is saying. Another directs your attention to the much-vaunted friendship between the mayor of Atlanta and the governor.
But the real reason why talk of a new stadium isn’t dead on arrival goes back more than 40 years, to a time when Reed was still in grade school and Deal was a wet-behind-the-ears lawyer. Since 1971, the state of Georgia has been the quiet underwriter of Atlanta’s convention and tourism industry.
Four decades of construction – first the Georgia World Congress Center, with two major expansions, then the Georgia Dome — have made the state one of the largest and most important real estate investors in the downtown area.
In 2011, when Occupy Atlanta was in the market for a spot to set up its tents, protestors settled on a tiny bit of city green space rather than spacious, 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park – even though the latter had a system of fountains well-suited for outdoor showers. Why? Because Olympic Park is state-owned ground, and state troopers do not fool around.
The College Football Hall of Fame will open next year on one side of Olympic Park. The state is putting up $15 million of a total $66.5 million private-public package, for a parking lot and other amenities.
All of this gives the state Capitol – whether it likes it or not — an enormous stake in downtown Atlanta’s success.
These days, to approve public monies to benefit a private sports team is a risky political venture. One could even call the measure tone deaf. But from a business point of view, it makes a deal of sense – the protection of long-held capital investments.
“The World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome have, over time, turned Atlanta into the fourth-largest convention city in the nation,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. “State investments have made Atlanta a destination city.”
It was Smyre who, as House floor leader for Gov. Joe Frank Harris, carried the 1986 legislation to permit the construction and financing of the Georgia Dome. Even that iteration of the Falcons’ home, which wasn’t finished until six years later, sparked public suspicion.
In the state Senate, the governor’s floor leader was a certain Roy Barnes of Mableton. Who refused to touch the Dome legislation, because he planned to run for governor.
Barnes lost the 1990 race. The winner was Zell Miller, who backed the construction of the Georgia Dome, and has endorsed its replacement. (Full disclosure: Miller is on retainer with McKenna, Long & Aldridge, the legal and governmental affairs firm in Atlanta that represents Blank in stadium negotiations.)
According to Smyre, the tone of the current debate over a Falcons’ home is more civilized than the one that occurred in 1986. Then-owner Rankin Smith’s threats to move the team to Jacksonville were loud and public, the Columbus lawmaker remembered.
This time, the Falcons have been party to no such blackmail. The painting of dire images has been left instead to the team’s landlord, the Georgia World Congress Authority.
State Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, who has emerged as one of the leading opponents of the new stadium, said GWCA officials have spent the last few weeks acquainting lawmakers with the following scenario:
If the Legislature fails to approve a new stadium, Blank – freed from his Georgia Dome lease in 2017 – could decide to build an open-air stadium closer to a suburban fan base. The cost, minus the retractable roof, would be about the same as Blank is now willing to put into the current deal.
A spokeswoman for the GWCA confirmed that the authority has hosted seminars for lawmakers in which it has been emphasized that, without the Falcons as a tenant, the Georgia Dome would immediately become a white elephant. The Dome, which now turns a hefty profit, would lose between $1.5 million and $2 million each year, lawmakers have been told.
It is this number – and the possibility that two generations of other state investments could also be put at risk – that has kept the debate over a new stadium in downtown Atlanta alive.
Philosophically, there is no doubt that many of the Republicans who rule the Capitol – even as they cheer tax incentives for auto factories or biotech plants elsewhere — are uncomfortable with the state’s stake in downtown Atlanta real estate, and what might be required to safeguard it.
But they’re also tasked with being responsible stewards of all state assets. And that’s the dilemma they’ll begin chewing over on Monday.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider