Atlanta council clears stadium plan

The Atlanta City Council late Monday voted to approve a funding plan for a new downtown Atlanta Falcons stadium, pushing the project over its biggest political hurdle.

The council voted 11-4 in favor of the use of city hotel-motel taxes to pay $200 million toward construction costs and potentially several times that toward costs of financing, maintaining and operating the stadium through 2050.

The vote came three days after the Georgia World Congress Center Authority approved the deal and left one more vote — by the city of Atlanta’s economic development agency — needed for the stadium project to move forward. The board of Invest Atlanta, which would issue the bonds to fund the public portion of the construction cost, is expected to vote Tuesday.

The Falcons expect to be playing in the new retractable roof venue in 2017, while their current home, the Georgia Dome, would be demolished. By August, the city and the GWCCA will try to work out a deal to buy two churches on the preferred site immediately south of the Dome.

“The agreement we negotiated is one of the best (stadium deals) in America,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said after the council vote.

“We’re going to build a terrific stadium,” Reed added. “… We have kept our team in downtown Atlanta. It’s a very big deal. Every major American city whose team moved to the suburbs took a significant financial hit. … We did the right thing today.”

Falcons president Rich McKay, who has led the team’s stadium negotiations for more than two years and sat through Monday’s 6 1/2-hour council meeting, expressed satisfaction but deferred celebration for at least one more day.

“We’re obviously pleased. We’re not going to jump up and down and go crazy because we realize we’ve still got another vote,” McKay said.

The resolution passed by the city council authorized extending the hotel-motel tax through 2050 and approved other agreements related to the deal.

“We are grateful for the Council’s vote of support today,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a statement. “The city of Atlanta and state of Georgia have a history of building strong public-private partnerships in areas that contribute to economic development. This project is no exception.”

Before the final vote, the city council amended the deal to stipulate that no city general-fund dollars will be used on the project, including for related infrastructure costs; that Invest Atlanta will facilitate adoption of a community benefits plan before issuing bonds; and that the Falcons will increase their commitment to off-site roadwork and related costs from a maximum of $50 million to $70 million if needed.

McKay reiterated after the meeting that the team expects infrastructure costs to be well under $50 million.

Although the City Council has held a series of briefings and work sessions on the stadium proposal since February, the vote came five days after members received the latest draft of the deal. Felicia Moore, chairwoman of the council’s finance-executive committee, strongly objected to voting so soon.

“This is unprecedented,” said Moore, one of the four to vote against the deal. “… We are voting about something that will impact this city for 50 years or more. We need to take our time and make sure all our i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.”

Councilwoman Keisha Bottoms responded that although the legislation came to council members just last week, the major points in the deal have been known much longer. “I am comfortable with the information I have received,” she said.

A motion by Moore to refer the stadium deal to the finance committee, rather than taking action Monday, was rejected 10-5.

Earlier in the meeting, 45 members of the public took turns speaking. An unofficial tally showed 22 speaking against the stadium or against a vote Monday, 18 speaking in favor and five noncommittal.

Many opposed to the stadium said a decision was being rushed and that more time and effort needed to go into how the project would affect the surrounding neighborhoods. Many in favor focused on the stadium’s job-creation and economic-development potential.

Dan Young, an Atlanta resident since 1972 and a former public administration professor, urged the council to vote yes.

“The financial structure they put in place is fair,” Young said, “and I don’t think it overburdens the taxpayer.”

Steve Carr, who has lived in Atlanta for more than 30 years, expressed skepticism that the stadium would benefit surrounding neighborhoods.

“We have 150 years of the business community running this city,” Carr said. “They displaced people to build Turner Field. They displaced people to build the Atlanta Civic Center. And they displaced people to build the Dome, which is already servicable. This city has a long history of being unfair.”

The stadium deal calls for 39.3 percent of Atlanta’s seven-cents-per-dollar hotel-motel tax collections to go into the stadium project through 2050 — the same percentage that currently goes into the Georgia Dome. After covering annual debt payments on the construction bonds, all money remaining from the 39.3-percent portion of the hotel-motel tax would be used toward stadium operating and maintenance expenses.

The stadium is expected to cost about $1 billion to build. The Falcons, the NFL and personal seat license sales would pay for about $800 million of the construction cost.

The Falcons and the GWCC Authority began negotiations about a new stadium in February 2011. Through the end of last year, the plan was for the state to issue the construction bonds. State legislators balked - despite having authorized a hotel-motel tax extension specifically for a new stadium in 2010 - and Gov. Nathan Deal punted the project to Reed.

The city got several major concessions from the Falcons, including the commitments from the team to contribute up to $70 million for infrastructure costs and up to $20 million for property acquisition. The Arthur Blank Family Foundation pledged a $15 million contribution to neighborhoods near the stadium.

“The council, in a short amount of time, significantly improved the transaction from what was initially presented to us,” council member Yolanda Adrean said.

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