Falcons’ field of dreams becoming real

The Atlanta Falcons’ plan for a $1 billion retractable-roof downtown stadium cleared the final political hurdle Thursday, amid cheers from supporters but also acknowledgement that daunting work lies ahead.

The 8-1 vote by the city’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta, to approve issuing bonds marks the end of three years of dealmaking over how much public money will go into construction. It’s also the beginning of an equally challenging phase to shape the building - and try to reshape the neighborhood around it.

The Falcons want the new stadium ready for the 2017 season. The Georgia Dome, where the team has played since 1992, will then be demolished. The plan has survived public skepticism about the need for a new stadium as well as the use of public money to build it.

“This is really about the best vision of ourselves: Not being mediocre, not being old, not being tired,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the chief political cheerleader for the project, said after Thursday’s vote.

Falcons executives now must select architects and contractors. They must work with government officials to buy the property for their preferred site and build out the infrastructure around it.

They must also decide how to mete out as much as $45 million in assistance to nearby struggling neighborhoods, wary of creating another isolated sports behemoth in a sea of parking lots. The specter of Turner Field, the popular but disconnected Braves stadium, looms large.

“We realize we can’t take a deep breath yet,” Falcons president Rich McKay said. “There’s a lot of work to be done if we need to do it right.”

The vote enables Invest Atlanta to issue more than $200 million in bonds backed by city hotel-motel taxes for the project. Board member Julian Bene, a management consultant, broke with his colleagues in questioning the stadium’s economic impact on the city, saying it would create “surprisingly few jobs.”

“My perception is that we’re switching one stadium for another and that we don’t get an additional amenity for the city,” said Bene. He urged state law be changed to allow the dedicated hotel-motel tax money to be used for other things, such as a streetcar route for Atlanta’s Beltline.

Reed argued that the project was the only way to keep the Falcons in the city and spare the Dome from having to compete with a flashy competitor in the suburbs if the franchise landed there. He dismissed criticism of the plan as empty chatter from the “cheap seats.”

“We’re not simply swapping one stadium for another. We’re building a best-in-class facility that will help us attract new events and retain the Falcons,” Reed said. He added: “They were going somewhere … Whether that was the suburbs or another city, they weren’t staying here.”

Falcons owner Arthur Blank began lobbying years ago for a new home field, arguing that while the Dome was adequate now it would become outdated in coming years. The Falcons also want to make more money in a new facility.

Blank is on the board of directors of Cox Enterprises, whose media holdings include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Talks jelled late last year but then stalled in January when the Republican-dominated state Legislature - which had already approved a hotel-motel tax extension to help fund a new stadium - got cold feet about following through with state-issued bonds.

Gov. Nathan Deal then punted the project to Reed, who pushed the City Council to approve a plan to have Invest Atlanta handle the public financing.

In addition to keeping the Falcons downtown, Reed hopes the deal helps the city lure a Super Bowl, a soccer franchise and other marquee events. He noted the latest vote came as Atlanta prepares to host the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament at the Dome.

The Falcons are responsible for all construction costs beyond the $200 million in public construction bonds. However, under the law extending the city’s hotel-motel tax, potentially hundreds of millions more will go to financing costs, as well as to maintenance and upgrades of the facility through 2050.

Meanwhile, the Falcons also agreed to pay up to $70 million in infrastructure costs and another $15 million to support the troubled surrounding neighborhood. Invest Atlanta would chip in another $15 million from a pool of property taxes it collects from a special taxing district, and it must craft a “community benefits” plan for the area. An additional $15 million for the community could come from private businesses.

State and city officials will get perks such as access to luxury suites and free seats as part of the arrangement. Invest Atlanta will also get the rights to host one event each year; an example offered was a national political convention.

Two sites near the Dome are still being considered for the new stadium, and one must be selected by August.

The Falcons and state officials prefer a location immediately south of the Dome that would keep the new stadium about the same distance from CNN Center and the MARTA station there. But first they must buy out two historic churches.

The team has set aside $20 million to pay for some of the property. If negotiations fail, Reed said the Falcons must resort to a lot about a half-mile to the north that’s not as close to public transit.

Other infrastructure challenges await, too. Roads will need to be rerouted, sidewalks expanded, lights replaced and utilities upgraded. The team will also need to finalize details of the personal seat licenses that would help pay for the stadium’s costs, as well as possible naming rights.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is how plans to boost the nearby Vine City and English Avenue communities will play out. Neither benefitted much from the Dome, and in the last two decades the population has fallen from 9,000 to 4,000 while poverty and crime persist.

City officials and Falcons executives say the $45 million can help but won’t be a cure-all.

“The challenge of building the stadium is one thing. The challenge across the street is much bigger,” said McKay, the Falcons president. “It will take a lot of effort by a lot of people to move the neighborhood forward.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.