Key details still lacking in stadium deal

Backers of a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons may need to fill in some details if they hope to get state legislators to effectively approve a deal.

Despite this week’s announcement of a basic “term sheet” agreement between the Falcons and a state authority, lawmakers signaled they want more specifics before they take up a vote early next year.

Among them are a decision on site for the retractable-roof stadium, which could either go to a site one-half mile north of the Georgia Dome on Northside Drive or an unspecified parcel directly to the south of the facility. The other is a more concrete agreement, known as a Memorandum of Understanding, that spells out finer points of the deal.

“It could be a whole lot easier to convince me and other members of the General Assembly if we saw the final deal,” said state Rep. Ed Lindsey, a leading Republican House member. He suggested that it could be difficult to sell the plan to legislators if it comes in with too much wiggle room.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat, hinted at the same concerns: “I think full information for legislators is critical if I’m going to go to our caucus to present this plan.”

Rough outlines of a new stadium deal were released on Monday when the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Falcons reached agreement on many business terms, including who will own the facility and who will run it.

But they will not determine the new facility’s location or have an MOU until mid-January.

The two are negotiating building a $948 million retractable roof stadium, though most expect it to cost more than $1 billion.

Legislative support has emerged as a key issue because the GWCCA needs its borrowing cap raised in order to issue the roughly $300 million in bonds that would represent the public financing component. The bonds would be paid by proceeds from an already extended hotel-motel tax.

The absence of a more definitive agreement as the legislature convenes could prove important because the authority had hoped to have a completed deal by year’s end. Frank Poe, the Congress Center’s head, said Tuesday he’s hopeful that a final deal will be reached by January.

If that’s the case, opponents who have long questioned using public funds for the project could get an added boost.

Opponents critical of using public funds on the project argue that hotel-motel tax collections should not be used for a stadium as the state struggles to recover from the recession. They point to the resounding rejection of the TSPLOST one-percent sales tax as an indication residents don’t support such funding.

“A long public debate can only make matters worse” for supporters, said Neil deMause, a New York-based co-author of “Field of Schemes,” a book that examines public money used in sports enterprises.

The ever-changing vision for the stadium has lengthened the process. Initially, the plan was to build an open-air stadium on Northside Drive for the Falcons and keep the Georgia Dome for other events that prefer an indoor facility, such as the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Final Four matches and the Bank of America Football Classic.

After state officials concluded it wouldn’t be financially feasible to keep the Dome open without the Falcons, the NFL franchise agreed to a stadium with a retractable roof facility. Under that plan the GWCCA would demolish the Dome.

And the addition of the south site earlier this year, backed by some supporters because of its proximity to MARTA spots and other downtown attractions, forced the GWCCA to miss several of its target dates to have pieces of a deal completed.

While GWCCA officials said the delay in choosing a site won’t sideline the project, approaching the Legislature with “yet-to-be-determined” components could pose risks, said Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“Legislators will ask, ‘Is this what should be at the top of the list?’” he said.

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