Friendship Baptist makes room for stadium

A preferred site for a new Atlanta Falcons football stadium that seemed to be out of contention nearly two months ago now seems inevitable.

The congregation of Friendship Baptist Church on Sunday overwhelmingly agreed to sell its historic house of worship to the Atlanta Falcons for $19.5 million.

“We believe, with this transaction, in our ability to remain in our community,” said Lloyd Hawk, chairman of Friendship’s board of trustees. “We will be able to provide an even greater level of service and ministry, which is so desperately needed in order to transform this community to the heights it is capable of achieving and so desperately deserving.”

The vote followed a similar one three days earlier by the members of nearby Mount Vernon Baptist Church, which will get $14.5 million for its home through a combined deal with the Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.

Both churches are on property city leaders and the GWCCA have agreed is the preferred “south site” for a $1 billion, retractable-roof stadium the Falcons want to open by 2017. The leaders say the site, near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Northside drives, is preferable because of its proximity to two MARTA stops, access to downtown and conventioneers, and is more compatible with a proposal for a nearby multi-modal passenger station.

In late July, the prospect of locating the stadium on the south site appeared to be in jeopardy after the GWCCA and Mount Vernon ended discussions because they could not agree on a sale price. The Falcons declared the site “not feasible at this time” and the team moved its focus to studying a north location along Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard and Northside Drive.

Mayor Kasim Reed, who stepped in and revived negotiations with Mount Vernon, praised Friendship’s vote in a statement Sunday, saying the process was not easy, but that he believed “all the parties involved kept true to the Atlanta way by coming together to make a decision in a fair, open fashion for the overall benefit of our city.

“I am excited about the positive impact that the expanded ministries of both Friendship Baptist Church and Mount Vernon Baptist Church will have in the community in the months and years ahead,” he said in the statement. “I also look forward to the construction of an iconic Atlanta Falcons stadium that is easily accessible to all of our city’s residents and brings well-paying jobs and greater business opportunities to the surrounding historic neighborhoods of Vine City, English Avenue and Castleberry Hill.”

The churches’ approval leaves the next move to the Falcons, who declined to comment Sunday. The team is not bound to re-focus on the south site, though it is generally agreed that the team would not have negotiated for the churches if it were not serious about the MLK-Northside site, which is just south of the Georgia Dome. The team has until Oct. 1 to settle on a site.

And even with the churches now on board, there are still a handful of smaller land parcels that need to be purchased to make the south site work. Frank Poe, executive director of the GWCCA, said during a retreat last week that work to secure those tracts has begun and that all are important to “operational efficiency.”

But he was not sure whether it was essential to have all of them for the project to move forward.

“Could you leave one off and it matter in terms of siting? That I can’t answer because we’ve not seen all the positioning that they would want to do on the stadium, ” he said.

Hawk would not provide the vote count in Friendship’s decision, offering only that support for the deal was “overwhelming.” He also said he did not know how long the congregation met to vote.

He said the church, which is 151 years old and has been at its current location for about 134 years, would decide where it would relocate in the next 60 to 90 days.

“This will be our third move in 151 years, ” he said, explaining that the church was founded in a boxcar during slavery and then moved to a facility about a block from its current home. “We don’t do it a lot, but we try to make it stay when we move.”

He said the city is helping Friendship find a home in the Vine City community, which he said was a priority in cutting the deal.

He described the negotiations, which were led by Reed on behalf of the Falcons, as “a process.” Church members, he said, have mixed emotions about moving on.

“Obviously, as an historic institution, anytime you make a decision like this, that type of change is going to be not just a decision on finances,” he said. “That is really probably just one tiny portion of it. It is a decision that is emotional and as a church, it is a spiritual decision.”

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