After a lengthy process that included switching plans midstream, a deal to build a $948 million retractable-roof football stadium in downtown Atlanta could be reached by year's end, the Georgia World Congress Center said.
It's the strongest indication so far that negotiations with the Atlanta Falcons — which began 18 months ago — are closing in on an agreement to make a playing field become reality.
But some obstacles remain that could prevent the Falcons from achieving their stated goal of opening the stadium by the 2017 season. They include a decision on its location, as well as changes going on in the political arena that could affect the funding the state previously said it would contribute toward construction.
Jennifer LeMaster, a spokeswoman for the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, said in an email that the organization is working diligently and hopes to reach an agreement by year's end. She described previous target dates for an agreement — the most recent of which was June or July — as guidelines, not hard deadlines.
"The complexity of the deal is ultimately driving the schedule, and we do not feel pressured to rush through our analysis in order to meet an aspirational timeline," LeMaster said.
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Falcons spokeswoman Kim Shreckengost, in an email, described the negotiations as productive and said the team hopes "an agreement can be reached soon."
The Falcons are committed to play in the Georgia Dome until the bonds on the building are paid off. That is scheduled to be 2020 but is on pace to occur as early as 2018, the GWCCA has said. If a new stadium opens sooner, the Georgia Dome bonds would be paid off as part of any deal.
The road to a deal for a new stadium has been long and winding.
The GWCCA voted in February 2011 to negotiate with the Falcons toward a possible memorandum of understanding, or MOU, on a $700 million open-air stadium to operate in tandem with the Georgia Dome. At the time, the GWCCA said in a statement that reaching such an agreement "could take up to a year to finalize."
But 14 months later, the parties concluded that the logistical and financial challenges of a two-stadium approach had proved too great and decided on a retractable-roof stadium that would replace the Dome.
A copy of a PowerPoint presentation made to the GWCCA's stadium development committee in April, obtained under the state's Open Records Act, states that the goal at that time was to "achieve an MOU by June/July 2012." The GWCC says that time frame and other items in the PowerPoint were "aspirational objectives by the team" and "certainly not definitive."
"It is probably fair to say that all dates are aspirational until you reach an agreement on business terms," LeMaster said.
A roadblock could be waiting with the upcoming legislative session, which could see legislation threatening the GWCCA's plan to commit about $300 million to the stadium. The Falcons would be responsible for the remainder of the cost, the GWCCA has said.
Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, said he is considering legislation that could halt state support for the project, including blocking efforts to raise the GWCCA's borrowing ceiling, which is now at $200 million. That would prevent the GWCCA from raising the money through the bond market and paying it back with hotel-motel tax revenue.
After the 2011 session, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a Senate bill altered by Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, that would have removed the borrowing cap but also require the bonds to be repaid from stadium revenue. Martin said the move was an effort to protect taxpayers and bring the GWCCA's bonding ability in line with other state authorities. Deal's office declined to comment for this story.
Only a year earlier the Legislature approved an extension of the existing hotel-motel tax in Atlanta and unincorporated Fulton County through the year 2050 as a partial funding vehicle for a new or renovated stadium as long as it was built on GWCC property.
Dudgeon said last month's defeat of the T-SPLOST demonstrates metro Atlanta voters' unwillingness to spend tax money on projects they think could be otherwise financed.
"If you put the stadium to a [public] vote, I think it would go down in larger numbers than the T-SPLOST," said Dudgeon, who thinks he could get strong legislative support because almost half of the rank-and-file membership in the next General Assembly wasn't in the Legislature when it first approved the stadium proposal.
A July poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution helps support Dudgeon's statement, showing that 67 percent of metro residents oppose using the hotel tax for a new stadium.
Rep. Ron Stephens, who co-sponsored the legislation that extended the use of the hotel-motel tax, said it is unrealistic to expect the Falcons to pay for the deal without that support because that's not how such deals are conducted.
"Hotel-motel taxes are totally different from the sales taxes that we were talking about in the T-SPLOST," the Savannah Republican said. "By and large they are paid for by visitors."
Site decision still needed
Progress toward building a stadium also has been slowed by uncertainty over a site.
For most of the process, the leading site had been GWCCA property at Northside Drive and Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard, just north of the Falcons' current home, the Georgia Dome. But officials earlier this year started considering unspecified parcels just south of the Dome.
The Falcons previously expressed enthusiasm for the north site but have not taken a public position on the south site.
LeMaster, the GWCCA spokeswoman, said progress is being made on selecting a site.
"Our evaluation is requiring additional assessments including environmental studies, traffic and other considerations and is not complete," she said.
LeMaster said both potential sites "involve the prospect of land acquisition."
That could cause problems for meeting the Falcons' desire to be in a new stadium by the 2017 NFL season. It generally takes three years to build a stadium. But other work, such as relocation of power and sewer lines, would add to the construction.
"The Falcons have stated publicly that their desire is to be playing in a new venue by 2017, and we are working toward meeting that objective," LeMaster said. "As we have not yet gone through the design process, speculating on when construction would begin is premature."
The GWCCA has refused to release a $25,000 study of the south site conducted by the Kansas City-based architectural firm Populous, citing the impact the study could have on the price of land that would need to be acquired for the project. In a previous study, Populous said a new stadium could fit on the 28-acre northern site.
Notes from the April meeting of the stadium development committee outline other issues that must be part of any agreement between the GWCCA and Falcons. They include the project's scope, schedule and budget; the public/private financial structure; the responsibilities of both parties in building and operating the stadium; and the handling of Georgia Dome "legacy" events, such as the SEC Championship football game and college basketball tournaments.
Whether the GWCCA and Falcons are in accord on some, or most, of those issues remains unclear.
Sept. 7, 2006: Falcons owner Arthur Blank predicts in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the team will have a new stadium in a decade or so.
April 13-14, 2010: The Georgia Legislature authorizes an extension of the hotel-motel tax in Atlanta and unincorporated Fulton County through the year 2050 as a potential vehicle to partially fund a new or renovated stadium on Georgia World Congress Center property.
May 18, 2010: Falcons President Rich McKay says in an interview with the AJC that the team's preference would be an open-air stadium, rather than a renovated Georgia Dome or a retractable-roof facility.
Feb. 22, 2011: The Georgia World Congress Center Authority agrees to enter formal negotiations with the Falcons on an open-air stadium. That plan calls for the new stadium to be home to the Falcons and other outdoor events while the Georgia Dome will continue to operate for indoor events. Several days later, the GWCCA says in a statement that it "could take up to a year to finalize" an agreement with the Falcons.
May 2011: Gov. Nathan Deal vetoes Senate Bill 140, the legislation Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, altered to lift the GWCCA's bonding capacity cap.
April: After more than a year of negotiations, the Falcons and the GWCCA abandon the idea of an open-air stadium, concluding that the challenges of two neighboring stadiums are too great. Instead, the parties shift their focus to a retractable-roof indoor-outdoor facility that would lead to the demolition of the Dome. The GWCCA's stadium development committee sees a PowerPoint presentation on "business term concepts" that includes a goal of "June/July 2012" for an agreement with the Falcons on a single-stadium plan.
Now: Negotiations continue between the Falcons and the GWCCA.
What's next: The GWCCA says it hopes to reach an agreement with the team by the end of the year. If a deal is reached, the GWCCA would ask the Georgia Legislature next year to approve an increase in the agency's debt limit.