Falcons raise ante as stadium moves ahead

How much will the public pay for proposed stadium?

The Atlanta Falcons committed another $65 million toward a proposed downtown stadium as the team and the city unveiled agreement on several key issues Thursday, moving the project closer to a final deal.

The bulk of the money, $50 million, would go toward road, sidewalk, utility and other infrastructure work required for the new stadium, according to a “key city terms” deal announced by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

The Arthur Blank Family Foundation would invest $15 million in projects aimed at boosting English Avenue, Vine City, Castleberry Hill and other neighborhoods close to the stadium.

That would be augmented by another $15 million from Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, for economic development projects in the area, according to the agreement, with that money generated from Tax Allocation District revenue.

The agreement offers financial relief to the city from infrastructure costs and is also aimed at answering calls for improvements to surrounding communities. It is subject to City Council approval and the completion of a detailed agreement between the team and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.

Several council members spoke highly of the proposed deal.

“We are not here just talking about a new (stadium),” member Michael Julian Bond said. “We are setting a new cornerstone for what will become the new modern Atlanta.”

Reed said it’s “our sense” that the $50 million will cover infrastructure costs associated with the stadium.

The latest terms also call for an equal opportunity plan to ensure at least 31 percent participation in design and construction by women and minority business enterprises.

The public contribution for stadium construction will be capped at $200 million, generated through bonds backed by the hotel-motel tax collection by the city of Atlanta.

“A new stadium will lead to the creation of well-paying jobs during its construction at a time when many of our friends and neighbors are seeking employment,” Reed said.

“This new stadium will also keep the city of Atlanta at the forefront of the hospitality industry in America as we pursue our goal of attracting 40 million visitors annually. It will strengthen the viability of the more than 200,000 jobs that support our tourism and convention business every single day.”

Reed and Blank were joined in City Hall by City Council members, officials with the Georgia World Congress Center, and Gov. Nathan Deal.

“There are things that will still need to be discussed and decided,” Deal said. “But the good thing is … we have really come to a point where people have come to some degree of agreement as to the benefits of a project of this nature.”

The Falcons want a new home field to replace the Georgia Dome in time for the 2017 season. Under the current plan a $1 billion retractable roof stadium would be built on one of two sites near the Dome, which would then be demolished.

All except the $200 million in public money would be paid by the Falcons, the NFL and personal seat license sales.

Initially the state was going to issue bonds for the public portion, but state political leaders balked. That pushed the project squarely into the city's lap.

While Reed ardently backs a new stadium to keep the Falcons downtown, Thursday’s announcement does not mean a final deal is in place.

The Georgia World Congress Center Authority, on whose property the new stadium would be built, said it “continues to work diligently” with the Falcons and the city to complete a deal. “Final agreements have not been reached by the parties,” a GWCCA statement said.

Still unfinished: a memorandum of understanding between the GWCCA and the Falcons on operational, financial and other details of a stadium deal.

However, the Falcons, more than two years into stadium negotiations, considered the latest development a breakthrough.

“It’s been a long journey, and it’s been a very successful journey,” Blank said. “… We’re thrilled to be here. We’re thrilled to be a partner. And we’re thrilled go through the final approvals that we need and actually start the fun part of this, which will be designing and building this stadium, this world-class facility.”

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

Blank also said Thursday that a site immediately south of the Dome is “preferred” for a new stadium. The other site considered is about a half-mile north.

Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell stressed that no deal will get done without council approval, although he is confident it backs a new stadium. Not including Mitchell, 10 of 15 voting council members attended the press conference. Eight votes are needed to pass any legislation, which Mitchell said could be within the next 30 days.

“As soon as we receive the proposal, we will vet it,” Mitchell said. “But we are very encouraged that our imput has been heard.”

Real challenges remain for city. They include relocating Friendship Baptist Church to make the footprint for the proposed south site large enough. The church, established in 1862, sits across the street from the proposed site and would have to be relocated so MLK Drive could be moved slightly.

Reed said if a deal between the project and Friendship can’t be struck, negotiations will return to the north site at Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard and Northside Drive.

Councilman Ivory Young, who represents the area near the Georgia Dome, said he hopes the combined $30 million in community and economic development funds from the Falcons and Invest Atlanta will reap another $15 million in private contributions.

“And we are going to take it and leverage it,” Young said. “This is not the end, but the begining.”

Residents of Vine City and English Avenue reacted positively to the financial commitments.

“The fact that they reached out before the deal is done is a very good sign,” said Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, an advocacy group with the goal of helping create healthy, livable neighborhoods. “I’m excited about the potential.”

Residents want to avoid being an afterthought as they say they were when the Georgia Dome was built. In that deal, the state created an $8 million housing trust fund that many criticized as ineffective and mishandled.

“I’m breathing a sigh of relief that we passed this hurdle,” said Greg Hawthorne, executive director of the Vine City Health and Housing Ministry. He applauded the funding despite the lack of specifics.

“We certainly want to know about the details because that’s where the rubber hits the road,” he said.