Blank on stadium: With politics done, ‘the fun starts’

Now that the political hurdles for a new downtown stadium have been cleared, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank is looking forward to what he calls “the fun part”: designing his team’s dream home.

In an exclusive hour-long interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — his first interview since partial public funding of the stadium got governmental approvals — Blank discussed the twists and turns of negotiations, his vision of a stadium open to the city’s skyline and the work that remains before the facility is built and the Georgia Dome is demolished.

Blank, who long expressed a preference for keeping the Falcons downtown, said moving to the suburbs was an option never seriously considered, and he vowed that the $1 billion retractable-roof stadium will become another in a “string of pearls” for downtown. The Falcons and other private sources will pay about $800 million of the construction cost, with $200 million coming from bonds backed by Atlanta’s hotel-motel tax revenue. The same tax is projected to pump hundreds of millions more into the stadium toward financing, maintenance and operating costs over 30 years.

Q: Do you have any doubt whatsoever at this point that the Falcons will be in a new stadium in 2017?

A: There was never a doubt we’d be in a new stadium in 2017. The question was where. We felt very comfortable that this was going to end up getting done downtown on the Georgia World Congress Center campus. There’s still a question as to whether it will be south or north (of the Georgia Dome). Our preference is for the south site, along with everybody else’s, but we’d be happy going (1/2 mile) north if we can’t end up facilitating the real-estate purchases necessary for the south. I never really had any serious doubts about getting the deal done, and the reason I didn’t is that when you have a situation where you create a win for everybody involved, there’s no reason why the transaction eventually shouldn’t take place.

Q: The next step is designing the stadium. Will you be involved in the interviews of architects planned for next week?

A: Oh yes. I’ll be heavily involved in the design process. That will be the fun part. The fun starts now, now that we got past the political process. Some of the political process isn’t fun.

Q: When you envision the stadium, what do you see?

A: I’m going into the design process very open-minded. I want to see a design that reflects the history of Atlanta, the traditions of Atlanta, the best of Atlanta and our visions for the future. What it looks like, I’m not sure.

Q: Do you have a vision of how the stadium should integrate with the rest of downtown and Northside Drive?

A: The only vision I have is that it needs to integrate. It shouldn’t feel like it’s something that is dropped in from outer space and there’s no connection to anything. One of the beauties of the south site, particularly with these real-estate acquisitions that hopefully will take place, is that we can orient the stadium so it has a magnificent view of downtown Atlanta.

Q: So the stadium will not be completely enclosed on both ends?

A: Correct. There will be plazas, etc., but you’ll be able to see out of it. (Note: On the site immediately south of the Dome, the plan is to orient the stadium in a southwest-to-northeast direction.)

Q: How can the stadium make a difference for the neighboring communities?

A: The easiest part of this is going to be to get a stadium built. Making long-lasting changes in some of the surrounding communities and in people’s lives is definitely more difficult. We are in the process of trying to figure out how can this be a catalyst for change. You have a great opportunity, but all it is is an opportunity — and responsibility in our case — to try to make those differences.

Q: You own property on Northside Drive across from the Dome. Do you plan to develop it for something other than parking?

A: We bought it selectively over time and used it for parking and tailgating. There’s not enough parking to serve the Georgia Dome. We’ve tried to supplement that over the years, and this property across the street fits into that profile. No (plans to develop it) doesn’t mean we couldn’t do something there, but it’ll be looked at as part and parcel of everything else.

Q: When will the Falcons start selling personal seat licenses for the right to buy season tickets in the new stadium?

A: We’ll have a PSL program. We don’t know what it’s going to look like yet. We’ll be working on that probably in the next three to six months. Expect it to be a much more modest program than some other franchises have done.

Q: You go before the NFL owners soon for their approval of the stadium deal and of league participation in financing, correct?

A: We do. I’m on the finance committee, and I can tell you that’s not a cakewalk. It’ll be in May.

Q: When negotiations started in February 2011, the plan was an open-air stadium to operate in tandem with the Georgia Dome. Are you surprised how much changed from then until now?

A: We felt a dual-stadium solution was workable, but we understood a solution for the Congress Center, the city and the state needed to work long-term. There was no question the Georgia Dome could be maintained for four, five, six, seven years. Could it be maintained for 30, 35 years? The answer was no. To sustain that building over that time, the complexities — both from an economic standpoint and a competitive standpoint with a new building — would have been very difficult. We had a breakfast meeting (with GWCC Authority officials early last year) at the St. Regis, and I told them then we were agreeable to a single-stadium solution if we could get the economics to work for everybody.

Q: A tentative deal reached in December unraveled a month later when the state opted not to issue the construction bonds, shifting the responsibility to the city. What was your thinking at that point?

A: I think, No. 1, both Gov. (Sonny) Perdue initially and then Gov. (Nathan) Deal have been incredibly supportive. Gov. Deal had some concerns about whether or not the bonding capacity could pass (in the Legislature) in this environment in this term. He shared those with me. He said, ‘Look, we’ll work on this and do what we can, but I think we ought to consider some other approaches as well.’ The mayor (Kasim Reed) realized the impact of a new stadium downtown, not just for our games but on maintaining all the legacy events that are in the Georgia Dome. Frankly, a lot of people think those are kind of birthrights to the Dome, but they’re not. There’s nothing to guarantee their being there in a declining building over time. The mayor has a very close working relationship with the governor, which is great for our city and state, and they worked together in coming up with a solution.

Q: Has it surprised or disappointed you that the public’s view of the project has been largely unfavorable?

A: I think, to be fair, it’s a relatively complex agreement. I think the reason it got the overwhelming votes it did from the Congress Center and eventually the City Council and Invest Atlanta was all because they understood the deal. So if we had the time to get in front of 11 million people one at a time and explain it to them in a way that we could have done effectively, I think the views would have been very different than what the general populace’s was. (He said it’s important to understand that the 39.3 percent of Atlanta’s hotel-motel tax allocated by law to the stadium is the same that goes to the Georgia Dome and that the tax is overwhelmingly paid by visitors from out of state.)

Q: Was building the stadium in the suburbs a real possibility?

A: Well, that was always an option, but it was not an option we considered seriously. This magnificent string of pearls downtown is being brought together where people will want to come and stay for three or four days and go to all these world-class facilities and walk to everything. I think the mayor sees that. I think the governor sees that as well. And we see that. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the stadium downtown. It’s because I felt like we could be one in that string of pearls. (He mentioned the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, the Children’s Museum and two coming facilities, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame.)

Q: When can Atlanta expect to host its first Super Bowl since 2000?

A: The requirements of the league are that you first have to have at least one full year of operation in the facility. So the earliest would be the 2018 season. It’s a matter of looking at a slot and figuring out (when to bid). NFL owners are very respectful of public contributions and commitments to franchises, so I think they’ll be, certainly, hopefully, looking past the ice storm of 2000.

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Blank’s answers were edited for length. He is on the board of directors of Cox Enterprises, whose media holdings include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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