Marietta approves soccer lease after contentious meeting

Arthur Blank’s Atlanta United to build headquarters in city

The Marietta City Council Wednesday approved a lease and three other agreements with Atlanta United FC which will pave the way for Arthur Blank’s Major League Soccer franchise to build its team headquarters and six lighted soccer fields in the city.

Although the team, which begins play in 2017, will host games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta, it will is expected to invest nearly $60 million in the facility, where it will practice, train and run its youth academies.

One of the agreement requires the city to build three soccer fields adjacent to the facility, and allows the team access to those fields for tournaments.

The Marietta Development Authority will meet Thursday morning and vote on the four agreements, which would be the last step in finalizing the deal.

Team president Darren Eales said they are shooting for an April groundbreaking and hope the facility is ready to go by January 2017. He acknowledged that the construction timeline is “tight,” but “we have a timeline to get it done.”

Mayor Steve Tumlin said the city’s next step is to “draw up” the design for the city’s three fields, which will be encompassed by a park with playgrounds, concessions, parking and rest room facilities on 13 acres that will be open to the public, even when the team is hosting tournaments there.

Tumlin said the city intends to have the park open at the same time as the team’s headquarters.

“We want to be kicking the ball at the same time they are,” the mayor said.

The team and Marietta signed a preliminary agreement in November, about a week after Atlanta United walked away from a DeKalb County site because of contaminated soil.

In total, Marietta approved four agreements with Atlanta United: a lease; a project development agreement; a facilities use agreement; and an Intergovernmental Agreement, which cements the terms with the development authority.

But they weren’t uncontested scores.

The meeting turned tense as councilman Philip Goldstein questioned aspects of the Intergovernmental Agreement for more than an hour. One of his issues came close to landing hard: Goldstein questioned why terms of the deal allowed the team to buy the land and facility for $10,000 in case of a city default.

Lawyers negotiating for the city explained that it was in the event that a future city council reneged on the deal by claiming they could not be held to terms of an agreement made by a prior city council.

Tumlin also questioned the provision, asking why the team wouldn’t pay fair market value for the land.

“I’m having trouble with the $10,000 myself,” the mayor said. “This one makes my heart stop.”

Atlanta United’s attorney said that the provision should never be enacted, and is only there to dissuade a future council from defaulting on the agreement — in effect making it swallow a “poison pill.” Tumlin eventually yielded, acknowledging the team had a $60 million investment to protect.

Goldstein went on to question other aspects of the agreements, and drew the ire of several other council members. At one point, Councilman G.A. “Andy” Morris told Goldstein that he valued Goldstein’s opinions about as much as any he would hear from the brick wall behind him.

“Sometimes our meetings are contact sport, but this was that important,” Tumlin said.

Atlanta United is building their facility on 32 acres, which the city will own at the end of the 30-year lease. The city spent about $24 million buying the sites on Franklin Road and tearing down dilapidated apartment complexes there.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week, dome construction has fallen behind schedule and will not be completed until June — three months after the start of Atlanta United’s inaugural season. Eales said the team will play its first three months of games on the road.

The city has purchased another 18 acres and is in the process of relocating residents of an apartment sitting on that site before tearing it down. Tumlin said that property could be up for redevelopment in about a year.

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