Falcons stadium will be a hard sell, legislators say

Amid stiff public resistance to partial public funding of a new Atlanta Falcons stadium, top state leaders say the team needs a better game plan if it expects to win crucial legislative support this winter.

“It’s hard to get lawmakers to vote for something that’s polling 70-to-30 no,” Gov. Nathan Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They need to directly communicate with the public. Either way the public attitude has to be significantly changed from where it is now.”

Some lawmakers suggest a vote to allow about $300 million in Atlanta hotel tax collections to be devoted to the proposed $1 billion retractable-roof stadium couldn’t go forward if they listened to constituents’ concerns.

“Members of the governor’s party — tea partiers and moderate Republicans — are not going to go for it,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, an outspoken critic of the proposal.

A new statewide poll conducted by the AJC showed 72 percent of respondents either opposed or strongly opposed using hotel/motel tax collections in Atlanta and unincorporated Fulton County to help finance construction.

That follows a July 2012 poll that found 67 percent of metro Atlanta residents were against that idea.

The Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, the state agency on whose land the facility would be built, signed a non-binding term sheet in December after months of quiet negotiations. It is the first piece of a detailed agreement on building and operating a new stadium.

Falcons President Rich McKay said the team has been more forthcoming in the media since then, adding in an email, “we do plan to take a more direct and aggressive stance with Georgia residents and their legislators in the coming weeks.”

The email didn’t give specifics, but McKay said the current plan would mean 4,500 construction jobs for the city and said it help keep it competitve for events like the World Cup and the Super Bowl.

“We have become the home for big-time college football events and we need to stay there,” McKay said.

Legislators in 2010 agreed to extend the city’s hotel-motel tax for a stadium. Under the current plan, which calls for the Georgia Dome to be demolished once the new facility is built nearby, the tax proceeds would be used to repay $300 million in construction bonds issued by the GWCCA. The Falcons would finance the rest of the construction cost.

But lawmakers must raise the GWCCA’s borrowing limit from $200 million to $300 million this year for the plan to go forward.

State Senate leaders have signaled they wouldn’t take that up until more pressing challenges, such as Medicaid funding, are addressed. And House Speaker David Ralston suggested the timing is still up in the air.

“I think the plan is still fluid,” Ralston told the AJC. “The reality is that there has to, at some point … be a solid plan that is going to be able to get political support. We’re not there yet. There is a very low level of support across this state for the state of Georgia increasing its exposure on this project.”

Delaying a vote until next year could give the Falcons and the GWCC time to sell the public on the stadium’s benefits. But they might also lose the urgency that compels the often slow-moving Legislature to take action, as well as any momentum from the Falcons strong season, which continues this weekend in the playoffs.

Poll respondent Billy Sanders, 39, said a new stadium might make sense if the Georgia Dome were in a state of disrepair.

“Are we suggesting it to aggrandize our position in the country?” said Sanders, a McDonough resident. ” I don’t see the need for it right now.”

Frank Poe, the GWCC’s executive director, said the deal would die without the public funding portion. If that happens the Falcons have suggested team owner Arthur Blank could build a less expensive open-air stadium on his own somewhere else in the metro area, leaving the state-run Georgia Dome with a flashy new suburban competitor.

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

So far, GWCC officials and Falcons executives have made their case directly to lawmakers, sometimes with lunch-and-learn presentations that leave many impressed. In addition to luring a Super Bowl, they say the stadium could woo a soccer franchise and other big-ticket events that bring a burst of new tourism dollars.

They note that the team is shouldering two-thirds of the cost, in contrast to 100 percent public funding for the Georgia Dome, which opened in 1992. Under their proposal, the Falcons would receive all the revenue and pay all the operating costs, and also pay the state $2.5 million each year in rent.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed backs the project and said this week he’s confident Atlanta will soon have a new “world-class stadium.” But his suggestion last year that the city could spend as much as $200 million on separate infrastructure improvements related to the stadium raised concerns.

“In this environment, when you have an economy lagging and teachers being furloughed, spending $500 million of state and city money on a playground for billionaires doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Fort, the Atlanta representative.

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, who chairs the House’s economic development committee, said the project will survive such objections.

“This is going to have a difficult time,” he said, “even though I think the Legislature will eventually support it.”