Fulton commissioners sidelined in Falcons stadium deal

The Fulton County Commission played an active role in the planning of Philips Arena, Turner Field and the Georgia Dome. But, so far, the board has been largely left out of discussions on a new $1 billion stadium for the Falcons.

For decades, the commission has been a defining voice in many of the county’s biggest developments. Yet Fulton’s lawmakers have been virtually sidelined throughout the Falcons negotiations. The sole commissioner set to vote on the plan will do so because she happens to sit on the board of an Atlanta agency that’s handling public bonds for the project.

Some commissioners see it as a sign of the county’s waning clout. As cities carve up the once vast unincorporated areas, Fulton’s financial and political influence has inevitably declined. Now, the county’s share of hotel/motel taxes that would go to the Falcons project is a relatively minuscule $57,000 each year.

It’s uncertain whether the commissioners will be asked to dedicate that money to the stadium or what happens to that tax.

“It’s undeniable that the position the county once played has changed,” said Fulton Commission Chair John Eaves. “The incorporation of cities has had a financial impact on the county. We are going through an evolution.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed took the lead in brokering a deal for the stadium, securing an agreement that the franchise will pay up to $70 million in infrastructure costs and another $15 million to support the troubled surrounding neighborhood. The city, in turn, will allow $200 million in hotel taxes to be used for the stadium’s upfront costs. Hundreds of millions more would go to financing costs, maintenance and upgrades at the facility.

Falcons executives declined to comment for this story, but Fulton commissioners have said they have no immediate plans to debate using taxpayer dollars on the stadium. Atlanta spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs said a vote by the county’s leaders was not necessary to finance the deal.

Instead, the last remaining political hurdle is a vote by Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, though the timing is uncertain. A Thursday vote was delayed to give the board, which includes Fulton Commissioner Emma Darnell, more time to review the terms.

“I wanted my team and the people who’ve been involved in the transaction to be allowed to take a breath,” Reed said of the delay. “The team that put together this transaction on both sides have been working nonstop for nine weeks, tirelessly, around-the-clock through weekends.”

Fulton’s taxpayers will contribute an unspecified amount to the project through a tax district overseen by Invest Atlanta. The agency plans to spend an additional $15 million on the neighborhoods around the stadium, and county commissioners raised concerns during their Wednesday meeting how they would make sure those funds are properly spent if they have no direct role.

“We don’t want to be on the sidelines going forward because there are so many citizens affected,” said Commissioner Joan Garner.

Other Fulton commissioners said they don’t mind that the board was bypassed.

“That simply tells me that you don’t need my money anymore — and that’s a wonderful thing,” said Bill Edwards, who represents a swath of south Fulton. “I can’t wait for you not to need my money.”

With that money came influence that helped shape the metro area’s growth, partly through the Fulton County Recreation Authority. The authority helped develop what came to be known as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where the Braves played for 30 years. The county’s taxpayers eventually underwrote part of the stadium’s public bonds and subsidized improvements.

The commission played a role in the negotiations for a Falcons stadium, helping to seal the deal to build the Georgia Dome after pushing the state to create a multi-million dollar housing trust fund to provide assistance for the surrounding neighborhood.

And commissioners helped broker the plan for Turner Field in the early 1990s, along with the ill-fated FanPlex, a $2.5 million entertainment center that closed down in early 2004 shortly after opening.

Fulton’s leaders ultimately approved the plan for Philips Arena, after initially opposing the tearing down of the Omni and the use of government-backed bonds to finance the new facility, after Hawks executives offered to place the team as collateral that could be sold to repay the bonds if the franchise defaulted on debt payments.

Longtime Fulton Commissioner Tom Lowe was involved in some of those negotiations, including the tense talks over the construction of Turner Field, which he initially called a bad deal for taxpayers. But he voted for it after the Braves agreed to cap the public cost and make other concessions.

“I’ve been up to my elbows and chin in it for 25, 30 years,” he said. “I’m ready for somebody else to shoulder the load.”

Still, some Fulton commissioners want the board to take a public vote on the Falcons project, even if the proposal’s fate is out of their hands. Eaves, the commission’s chair, said he hopes the board ultimately votes on a resolution supporting the construction.

“We will have a voice,” he said. “It may be as a minor partner.”

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