Meetings over Falcons stadium community benefits erupt over surprise legislation


Meetings over Falcons stadium community benefits erupt over surprise legislation

Residents who have spent months participating in talks with Atlanta officials over how to divvy up millions for communities impacted by the future Atlanta Falcons stadium were stunned Wednesday to learn the plan they were working to formulate has already been submitted to the city council for approval.

In what was undeniably the most explosive meeting to date over the community benefits package, residents railed against city officials after learning Councilman Michael Julian Bond introduced legislation this week that could be voted on in early December. The committee had not yet approved a set of recommendations they’ve spent months creating.

The community benefits package — which determines how to spend $30 million that is meant to bolster the poverty-stricken areas near the future stadium — must be affirmed by the council and approved by Mayor Kasim Reed so that the city can issue $200 million in bonds backed by hotel-motel taxes for stadium construction.

“How could a document move from this committee without the committee having any knowledge of the fact that this was moving?” said a visibly angered Yvonne Jones, who represents a neighborhood planning unit and sits on the stadium benefits committee. “You have given us nothing, no email, no phone, no communication to let the committee members know it was moving in that direction.”

Katrina Taylor Parks, who has represented Reed’s administration in the ongoing negotiations, countered that committee members were told in last week’s meeting that the draft proposal would be taken to the council. The legislation is meant as a “placeholder” only, she said, and was only submitted because the Atlanta City Council has just one more full council meeting this year.

“The objective was to get a draft in the process (and) come back with suggestions,” she said, adding she expected those changes would be discussed at Wednesday’s community benefits meeting.

Tensions have run high from the very beginning over how much say the residents of English Avenue, Vine City and Castleberry Hill will have on how to spend community benefits funds —- money meant to smooth the feathers that inevitably will be ruffled when a 1.8 million square foot building is plopped in their area.

Fifteen million dollars will come from the Westside tax allocation district and $15 million from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. The stadium benefits committee is composed of city officials and representatives from community organizations.

Taylor Parks reminded the committee members and residents in the audience, who have spent months participating in talks over the funds, that their votes weren’t needed to move the plan onto the council for consideration.

“If anyone else has read the legislation it’s clear this body does not even have a vote. You can read. We have said this all along,” she said.

Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who has intermittently attended the stadium meetings, shook with disbelief. He was absent from Monday’s full council meeting when Bond’s legislation was read and referred to the city’s community development/human resources committee for consideration.

“What I have just heard is the most twisted thing I’ve ever heard in my 12 years of being on this council and I am trying to put myself in a position of someone sitting out there in the audience,” he said. “I think it’s deplorable to say we are going to trump a process that was intended to be a product produced here, and deliver it to the council to consider … and do it in the name of the process because it’s the end of the year?”

The squabble was the latest and most stunning development in the ongoing negotiations.

Early on, residents and officials clashed over wording in legislation that referred to the community benefits package as a plan —- not agreement.

To outsiders, it’s just semantics. But for residents living in communities that will be impacted by the stadium, many who carry suspicions of whether money promised to their neighborhoods will be delivered, the wording carries tremendous weight. Agreement, they say, makes such commitments legally binding. After months of protest, city officials changed the legislation to “plan/agreement,” but the issue has since haunted the proceedings.

Howard Beckham, who represents Vine City and English Avenue Ministerial Alliance, said he was stunned by the news legislation had moved on to council.

“This is shocking,” he said, admonishing the councilmembers seated at the table. “You wonder why we wanted an agreement? Because we don’t trust you! And you have proved it!”

Bond apologized repeatedly to the community and said “it was not the intention to shock and dismay the public or members of the committee.”

Bond was absent from the last community benefits meeting and said he introduced legislation as a “dummy” paper and planned for the committee to add specifics before the full council convenes.

That earned the ire of Kyle Kessler, who represents the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association on the board: “I understand what a placeholder is … I think we’ve been treated as dummies and you’ve presented a dummy-paper on our behalf to the committee.”

Councilmember Ivory Young, whose district includes communities impacted by the stadium, pledged to hold the legislation in the city’s community development/human resources committee until it’s finalized with suggestions from the community.

“My commitment to you is unless this body offers an affirmative recommendation … it’s going to be my recommendation that it continue to be held in committee until such time we offer a formal recommendation on this paper.”

The community benefits meetings are geared toward developing project-specific goals to address environmental impact, traffic congestion, public safety concerns and potential gentrification of these neighborhoods from the stadium.

City officials have engaged in public and private meetings with neighborhood groups to address their concerns since early summer. The final plan, as presented Wednesday night, included ideas such as a business incubator, job training and workforce development center and health/wellness programs.

Resident Hattie Dorsey early on expressed concern the document was incomplete.

“The document being circulated does not have objectives of how to reach any of these activities you have listed… the how-tos have not been explained,” she said. “This is incomplete.”

The contentious meeting resulted in two outcomes — a special called community benefits meeting scheduled for this Monday, and a recommendation to the city committee now vetting the plan/agreement: Hold the paper.

The community development/human resources meeting meets Tuesday to discuss the package.

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