Why the Atlanta stadium debate remains alive: Location, location, location

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

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173 comments Add your comment

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Rafe Hollister

January 12th, 2013
9:45 am

The next time one of the left wing bloggers insist that America is a democracy, remind them of this boondoggle. 72% of the states voters are against it, so when the mayor, legislature, and governor approve it, you realize that we are a representative republic, not a democracy. We get what the ruling elite think is in our best interest, rather than what the majority of people want.

Shar

January 12th, 2013
10:00 am

We don’t need this, we don’t want this and we can’t pay for this. Arthur Blank holds the opposite position to the rest of Georgia on all three measures, and the representatives of We, The People are making the same kinds of syrupy gurgles that a dog makes right before it lies down and rolls over.

Mr, Mayor, Mr. Governor: Remember the T-SPLOST vote. This is not how the taxpayers want public money spent.

mike

January 12th, 2013
10:02 am

I have never understood why our stadiums are way down in the semi-dangerous parts of town. Why would you not build them a little further north where things are a little more stable?

hiram

January 12th, 2013
10:25 am

Look at Deal’s real estate track record. He guarantees the stupid investment in the outdoor store in the middle of nowhere, which would have bankrupt him without his political leverage, and claims he doesn’t know anything about the person he sold it to, even though he owner financed it. It should give Georgia taxpayers a lot of confidence in his ability to make billion dollar real estate decisions, using their money.

Jon Lester

January 12th, 2013
10:25 am

Why is it so much easier to raise money for a stadium than for social programs?

John Ellison

January 12th, 2013
10:26 am

It will be a lot easier to get the taxpayers to pony up money for a new stadium if the Falcons win the Super Bowl this year.

Gerald

January 12th, 2013
10:26 am

@mike:

So you would support taxpayer funds for this if it was further north?

John

January 12th, 2013
10:28 am

So, what will happen to the Dome? Nobody ever seems to talk about that?

Colonel, USA

January 12th, 2013
10:29 am

I don’t like the idea of misuse of taxpayer money either but you must weigh what is involved here….specifically what would happen without the new stadium.

The Ga Dome will be demolished and Atlanta will probably lose the SEC Championship game as well as NCAA Basketball tournaments, and a host of other sports events not to mention the Superbowl. These events will not be held in stadiums without roofs.

Its really that simple. If you don’t want Atlanta to be a host for those events and events like them, don’t build a new stadium.

Gerald

January 12th, 2013
10:29 am

@Shar:

And what do you want public money spent on? Incidentally, the T-SPLOST passed in the city of Atlanta. The entire state shouldn’t get to dictate what the city of Atlanta does with its own tax revenue. So unless you are a resident of the city of Atlanta, where does this “we” stuff come from? Save that rhetoric for the suburbs, which has never built anything worthwhile to attract jobs and conventions – and only exists because Atlanta built things like Hartsfield to make the region viable for commerce – and never will.

Snags

January 12th, 2013
10:30 am

New stadium now! MLS, ASAP! Atlanta Chiefs FC!

hiram

January 12th, 2013
10:39 am

@ Gearld
“Save that rhetoric for the suburbs, which has never built anything worthwhile to attract jobs and conventions – and only exists because Atlanta built things like Hartsfield to make the region viable for commerce – and never will.”

Did you know that Georgia’s taxpayers created Atlanta? And, people in cities like Columbus, which had a navigable river, and didn’t need no railroad to get their cotton to market, were highly upset about it.

Cherokee

January 12th, 2013
10:42 am

Fascinating, Jim. Thanks.

Bullseye

January 12th, 2013
10:51 am

Bring on the new stadium. World Cup action will follow.

Gerald

January 12th, 2013
10:51 am

@hiram:

No, Georgia taxpayers did not create the city formerly known as Terminus. Even if they did, that shouldn’t give the state rights of overlordship ever since. Either you support local control or you don’t. It is ironic that the same people who complain endlessly about liberal federal oversight of states and cities have no problem with Georgia getting to dictate what goes on with Atlanta.

Aquagirl

January 12th, 2013
10:51 am

Arthur Blank isn’t building a stadium in the ‘burbs. Without easy access to the airport and hotels for anyone who lives more than a couple hours drive, who will fill those seats? Locals? LOL! Gwinnett’s minor league baseball park has a far smaller capacity and many more games. How’s that working out for them?

Stadiums without a surrounding infrastructure are not profitable. Sorry exurbanites, nobody cares if you’ll attend a couple of games a year in a stadium built just for people scared of downtown.

The Truth in Cherokee County

January 12th, 2013
10:53 am

The dome is sufficient for the Falcons needs. Sports teams need to stay in Atlanta. The north does not want a stadium near our neighborhoods. We like neighborhoods not hoods.

Gerald

January 12th, 2013
10:56 am

Correction. The Georgia taxpayers send the railroads through there in order to help state and interstate commerce … and this was back when our government actually did things to benefit this state instead of the pipe dream that these globalist corporations would do it. But it was private citizens who chose to live there and built homes and businesses there and established the city proper, not the state. It was those residents who incorporated the city, not the state, whose only contribution was the railroads. So you would get no more than “partly true” on the Truth-O-Meter. And even that partly true doesn’t give the state the right to rule the city – like it does no other city in this state – ever since.

Gerald

January 12th, 2013
10:57 am

“The Truth in Cherokee County”

You tend to Cherokee County’s issues and let the citizens and leaders of Atlanta tend to its needs. This project will be financed with Atlanta tax revenue and you won’t need to contribute a penny. You are certainly free to have an opinion, but you should have no influence.

Gerald

January 12th, 2013
11:02 am

Aquagirl:

In fairness, minor league baseball isn’t a large draw no matter where it is built. The attendance is highest for minor league baseball teams in small cities, not major metropolitan areas.

Were the Falcons to be placed in Gwinnett, they would do fine. Lots of sports teams play in the suburbs. (The Washington Redskins actually play in Maryland, and the New York Giants actually play in New Jersey for example.) And if the Falcons wanted to move to Gwinnett or Cobb, lots of the fiscal conservatives who now oppose Atlanta spending its own tax money for this project would all of a sudden support state taxpayer money on relocating them, as well as transportation projects to make the thing viable.

Angry Voter

January 12th, 2013
11:04 am

Jim – I’ve followed this story in the AJC. Today’s article was the FIRST TIME I’ve ever seen it mention that Arthur Blank sits on the board of your company. DISGUSTING that this isn’t mentioned in every article. I have posted several times asking why the AJC seems so biased in its reporting of this issue. The AJC, until today’s article, has been nothing but a cheerleader for the stadium. Now I know. The AJC isn’t a fair, impartial journalist in this situation. The AJC is an interested party. Henry W. Grady’s legacy deserves better.

Please, going forward, at least be honest when you are blogging about the stadium and include the fact that y’all kinda work for Arthur Blank the man who benefits if the stadium gets built.

Cherokee

January 12th, 2013
11:09 am

I think you’re correct Gerald, that if the stadium were to be built in Cobb, it would all of a sudden be a worthy use of tax money, in the eyes of the Repubs there.

And yes all of us in the metro area need to support Atlanta – without a thriving city center, the area will die. When considering a place to move and set up shop, a corporation in Bumdrum Idaho will consider Atlanta; but Canton wouldn’t even be on the radar.

Aquagirl

January 12th, 2013
11:19 am

Lots of sports teams play in the suburbs.

They play in “suburbs” that are more densely crowded than say, the ones around Cool Ray field. The Giants play in MetLife stadium, if you think that’s remotely similar to Flowery Branch or Alpharetta you need to look at a map.

Plus those stadiums usually have access to several major highways and rail transportation. And local municipalities kick in money. Do you think Marietta has the same tax base as Santa Clara?

Frankly your comparison is insane.

Angry Voter

January 12th, 2013
11:23 am

@Aquagirl – I’m guessing you don’t travel much. Dallas, or Arlington, has stadiums in the equivalent of Alpharetta. Many college teams put over 100k in their stadiums despite being hundreds of miles from a major city. State College, PA, is three or four hours from Pittsburgh and Philly and until a couple years ago, nowhere near a highway. Michigan State is two hours from Detroit.

Don Abernethy

January 12th, 2013
11:25 am

Politicians are more interested in how much money is in for them than what voters want. Lobbyist will make sure the stadium is built. Politicians know that the voters do not have the guts to kick them out of office for voting for the stadium.

Shar

January 12th, 2013
11:34 am

Gerald: I’ve lived in Virginia Highlands for 30+years. Where do I want money that is generated in Atlanta spent? To augment the appallingly bad education that Atlanta kids receive and to pay down infrastructure bonds such as the sewer bonds that have made our rates the highest in the country. I certainly don’t want it spent on a shadow box for Arthur Blank’s ego.

I’ve already paid for the Dome once. It offers no benefit to me personally (I have been there a grand total of once, and that was under duress) but I understand that it is economically beneficial to have a giant stadium available. It serves its purpose, and for all of Blank’s posturing he has not denied this.

There are too many people with real needs in this city for that kind of limited-target investment of scarce public funds.

yuzeyurbrane

January 12th, 2013
11:36 am

Fear should not be the reason for the public to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on anything, much less a playground for millionaires and a subsidy for a billionaire. If Blank wants to build his own stadium with his own dime then fine. Since he would then be a competitor for the Dome, I think the state should not sell him any land near the Dome or otherwise pay for infrastructure costs which would benefit him. I doubt he would get any assistance from Gwinnett taxpayers because they got burnt on finances of their minor league baseball white elephant. But if some suburban county is foolish enough to do that then fine. Or even better if Blank and his investors put their money down wherever they want. If it is a great idea financially and they are willing to take all the risk then they deserve the reward.

As to Georgia Stadium Authority, you neglected to mention public statement of either their Chairman or Exec. Director a couple of weeks ago in which he said the only ones he considered worthy of talking to were the legislators and the Falcons fans. He specifically said the taxpaying public did not warrant being part of any conversation. However, he said they would be happy to receive any emails the public wanted to send. What arrogance! I hope that when Deal and Ralston say Blank and the Stadium Authority must make a better pitch to the public that this is what they are referring to. There has been no meaningful public presentation yet they want our money, perhaps because they know the public has already made up its mind. The persuasion they prefer is a few more free skyboxes for key legislators and game tickets for the whole legislature if necessary.

Church of the painful Truth

January 12th, 2013
11:38 am

Forget it,we (72%) are just a little rock in the road to bypass. The new stadium is a done DEAL!!! It was approved by the few two years ago. Important things happen behind closed doors.

Shine

January 12th, 2013
11:41 am

Will we all have to pay to enter it having helped pay to build it? I have keys and the right to enter all other property I pay for.

We need money for education, health, and highways. Not funding for another deadbeat billionaire or any more deadbeat corps like Delta Airlines. railroads, businesses getting energy tax exemptions etc etc etc…

The monkeys need removing from operating the state capital and put back in the zoo.

Aquagirl

January 12th, 2013
11:41 am

Dallas, or Arlington, has stadiums in the equivalent of Alpharetta.

Cowboys stadium is in the middle of a metro area, not on the edge. It’s also notorious for transportation issues. And are you seriously comparing Arlington TX to Alpharetta, GA?

College teams are not NFL teams, UGA could build a stadium in Hahira and still fill the thing every game. I’m pretty sure the Falcons could not do the same. They aren’t the Packers or a college team with a large contingent of multi-generational fans.

The idea suburbanites will migrate from around a 28 county metro area through hours of traffic so they can fill a stadium for a team they didn’t grow up with—C’mon. Be serious here.

JamVet

January 12th, 2013
11:43 am

The next time one of the left wing bloggers insist that America is a democracy, remember that it is.

Notwithstanding what some ignoramus thinks.

For some bizarre reason, our new age, Uncle Sam hating, fascistic Republicans have a huge problem with the D word.

You figure it out; I can’t…

honested

January 12th, 2013
11:46 am

We don’t need no mo money fo schools and besides, massa blank say he wants us to buy him a palace so who is we to argue?

Y’all act like he ain’t go rights to our money!

honested

January 12th, 2013
12:00 pm

JamVet,

Those who disagree are just following the am radio talking points.
If they heard it on wrong wing rant radio, it must be true!

JPolk

January 12th, 2013
12:02 pm

As far as I can tell, Blank is the only one that wants this.

Angus

January 12th, 2013
12:05 pm

I wish the mayor would be more forthcoming on his upcoming bond issuance for infrastructure. Is it for the stadium area? Underground? Streetcars? I’ve recently heard of it being used for everything under the sun. Honesty regarding infrastructure investment has not been this administration’s strong suit.

Aside from that, I’m all for the new stadium. Y’all act like $300mil financed over 30 years is a lot of money. Metro Atlanta’s hospitality industry is $11bil a year – the hotel tax generates over $30mil a year. APS flushes $300mil down the toilet every 2-3 years – certainly don’t advocate giving them anymore money.

DannyX

January 12th, 2013
12:12 pm

The contribution of $300 million tax dollars is a myth. In order to build a stadium you need a big investment in infrastructure. Part of the deal includes a $200 million contribution from Atlanta. That’s a half billion tax payer dollars.

Another myth is that visitors will pay the tax through the hotel/motel tax. The $200 million Atlanta contributes will have to be paid for! Reed wants an additional 1% sales tax to pay for the city’s share. Anyone who spends money in Atlanta will help pay for the new stadium.

It’s amazing how the Falcons have been able to con the media and politicians into the $300 million taxpayer price tag. Unless of course they are in on the con!

Its half a billion dollars and yes area residents will contribute.

For you suburban stadium advocates, what municipality has $200 million for infrastructure improvements that will be necessary for your new stadium? You ready to vote for a new one percent sales tax that will cover the cost. An open air stadium may indeed lower the costs, but Jim didn’t mention the infrastructure tab will still need to be paid for. Who pays for that?

Aquagirl is correct, your roads would need huge upgrades or it is Atlanta Speedway all over again. Arlington Texas already was equipped to handle crowds from Six Flags and Rangers baseball.

How much are you willing to pay in new taxes for 10 football games a year?

JamVet

January 12th, 2013
12:14 pm

honested, I call it Repulispeak. And it is sickening how little respect they have for our language.

Instead, they have their own GOP Dictionary of Made Up Definitions that have little if anything in common with real ones.

To wit,

democracy -noun
1. government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
2. a state having such a form of government: The United States and Canada are democracies.

Hello, Republicans?

Did all you sleep through high school?

YeahRight

January 12th, 2013
12:14 pm

If the Falcons did not play at the dome, it would be a white elephant? Only with the assumption that all other events would go to the Blank open air suburban stadium… which is highly unlikely. (there is something about being inside that event promoters seem to like.)

Here we are in a financial crisis arguing over something that really is not important, unless you are really into the sports entertainment industry. I really do like football, but it does not drive my life!

This is an issue for the Atlanta and unincorporated Fulton taxpayers. Meddling by the state is unwelcome, as Atlanta already has way too much state interference in infrastructure. Comments by Falcons fans should be welcome, but the REAL folks that should have a say are those in the taxpaying jurisdictions. (this is quite opposite of what the Falcons feel – sadly.) To claim that the all the taxes come from out of town folk is folly – consider the business person that visits Atlanta to work with a client. His/her expenses (including the hotel/motel tax) are passed on to the Atlanta client, which in turn passes them on. So we all ultimately pay some of this.

Do we need the new stadium? Not really. Would it be cool? Probably. Now just what are the hidden costs to the taxpayers, and what are the benefits of those costs? Would someone please give us some honest numbers?

This is Mrs. Norman Maine

January 12th, 2013
12:18 pm

I will NEVER support the Falcons in the suburbs. NEVER.

Jethro

January 12th, 2013
12:23 pm

Just thinking out loud here, but Los Angeles needs a football team. If Mr. Blank’s contract expires and he doesn’t get his stadium, what’s to stop him from moving to L.A.?

DannyX

January 12th, 2013
12:33 pm

“Just thinking out loud here, but Los Angeles needs a football team. If Mr. Blank’s contract expires and he doesn’t get his stadium, what’s to stop him from moving to L.A.?”

There are plenty of teams that would love to move to the Dome. Unlike LA, Atlanta already has an acceptable stadium, move-in ready. Atlanta Chargers? Atlanta Raiders?

honested

January 12th, 2013
12:34 pm

Jethro,

I would contribute to helping rent a truck for them to load their stuff up and go away.

Football is nothing but entertainment.

Until all of the costs of civilization are met, it is beyond foolish and the definition of ‘confiscatory’ to spend a penny of taxpayer funds to an enterprise that is nothing but entertainment on it’s best day.

Why are our State and City leaders so willing to bend to the whim’s of a guy who’s accomplishments have been to build a chain of hardware stores and to help put g.w. bush in the Whitehouse?

DannyX

January 12th, 2013
12:43 pm

As the NFL has proven over and over again, there is no loyalty to the cities teams play for.

We should be turning the tables on the Falcons. The Falcons lease ends in 2017. Atlanta has a very usable domed stadium. Instead of listening to any blackmail threats from Blank our politicians should be visiting teams that are looking for a new location. 70,000 every game, favorable lease terms, excellent local sponsors, it wouldn’t be a hard sell.

Aquagirl

January 12th, 2013
12:52 pm

If Mr. Blank’s contract expires and he doesn’t get his stadium, what’s to stop him from moving to L.A.?

The tiny little fact that the main developer of the proposed stadium is for sale.

There are other potential teams with worse stadium deals for LA to poach. Arthur Blank wants this new stadium to increase his profit margin, he’s not gonna move to LA if it’s not a better financial deal.

And in the worse case scenario—despite the Jock Panic losing an NFL team is not the end of the world.

Fred

January 12th, 2013
12:58 pm

@JamVet – I fear it is you that slept through high school or went to some school teaching revisionist history. The founding fathers were deathly afraid of a true democracy as they had experienced the difficulties with such a form or governing. The USA is a republic, not a democracy. A true democracy would *every* citizen voting on *every* issue that democracy faces. We vote for people to represent us hence the republic style of government. I think most of us and indeed the world tend to think of us as a democracy due to our strong history of mostly free elections and our government mostly following the wishes of the governed.

Dictionary.com’s use of the US and Canada as examples of democracies is true only to the extent that both countries citizens have a say in their government as opposed to a dictatorship or oligarchy. A read of any political science text well give you the true definition of democracy vs republic.

Jim C

January 12th, 2013
1:02 pm

Mr. Blank should pay for his own playpen. But if we do get suckered into building him a new dome, we should at least keep the old Dome for other purposes. Look at how Ted Turner browbeat the city into tearing down the old baseball stadium when we built him a new one, really neat way to lock out the competition.

.

JamVet

January 12th, 2013
1:02 pm

A read of any political science text well give you the true definition of democracy vs republic.

Riiiiiight.

Because as we all know the dictionary is completely untrustworthy. And YOU are the arbiter of such definitions. And as a corollary you get to make up other inane rules such as the terms republic and democracy being mutually exclusive.

Even when given incontrovertible proof you are dead red wrong, you refuse to acknowledge it.

Welcome to the modern GOP…

Fred

January 12th, 2013
1:06 pm

@honested – “a guy who’s accomplishments have been to build a chain of hardware stores” that happen to employ hundreds of thousands directly and who knows how many hundreds of thousands indirectly though suppliers and purchasers of its products who then use said products in their businesses. All of whom contribute to the overall economy and tax base. Compared to someone whose only known accomplishment is to sit behind a screen name on a blog and make snarky comments? Hmmmm, I think I know who I was say has contributed the most. SMH and going to so something useful today.

Newt is nuts

January 12th, 2013
1:16 pm

Time for a little arithmatic lesson. Keeping the Dome, as it is, without the Falcons will mean an operating loss of $2 million a year. If we don’t spend $500 million for a new stadium and area improvements, I figure we can cover that annual loss for many, many years and still be ahead of the game.