Falcons owner talks new stadium

Blank leaves door open to south site

Arthur Blank may not have to go out of pocket to secure Mount Vernon Baptist Church, one of two churches that would have to move to make way for a $1 billion stadium on land south of the Georgia Dome. The funds to help state officials complete the church deal could potentially be satisfied with money already committed to the project, the Atlanta Falcons’ owner said at a public forum Wednesday.

“We looked at the project totals and expect this is what our budget will be,” he said in response to a reporter’s question, explaining that money set aside for various costs can be redirected. “But there certainly are sufficient funds to get the deal done on the south site.”

But whether the Falcons decide to reallocate dollars to close the gap, which at one time was $14 million and reportedly dropped to $9 million, between what Mount Vernon wants and officials with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority can pay for the church’s property remains to be seen. The team is currently running a feasibility study of land a half mile north of the Georgia Dome.

“We’re going to do whatever we have to do to get the stadium built for a whole lot of reasons … so we wouldn’t say yes, we wouldn’t say no,” Blank said when asked whether he’d kick in additional dollars. “We want these churches to do what’s in their best interest; not in our best interest.”

Blank’s comments came at a forum discussing design plans for the retractable-roof stadium. The event, attended by hundreds and sponsored by the Council for Quality Growth, marked the first time the business mogul has spoken publicly about the project in recent months.

Just where to build the new arena has dominated stadium discussion, gaining steam a month ago when negotiations between the GWCCA and Mount Vernon fell through. The state and Mount Vernon remain at a standstill because, by law, the state can’t offer more than the appraised value of $6.2 million. Anything above that must come from private sources, such as the Falcons. The church wanted $20.4 million.

In late July the Falcons declared the south site “not feasible at this time” and began studying the north site located by Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard and Northside Drive, a process that will indicate costs and challenges of building on that location. For starters, a power line would have to be relocated.

Just days after the state walked away from talks with Mount Vernon, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — the strongest proponent of building on the south site off Martin Luther King and Northside drives — announced the city struck a $19.5 million deal on behalf of the Falcons to buy Friendship Baptist Church.

Reed and several city officials prefer the south site for its proximity to two MARTA stations and a potential multimodal passenger terminal.

The mayor then stepped into negotiations with Mount Vernon, later announcing the church might be willing to accept a $15.5 million offer. The congregation, however, has reportedly not approved that proposal.

Mount Vernon has remained silent on the negotiations, though Blank said Wednesday that he has spoken with the Rev. Rodney Turner, the head of the church.

The Falcons have through Oct. 1 to complete feasibility studies on the north site, but Blank said he hopes to announce a location in coming weeks in order to stay on track for a 2017 opening.

“There’s always fluff built into these schedules,” Blank said, perhaps referring to the original Aug. 1 deadline set forth to acquire the two churches. “That fluff is really gone and (the architects and construction teams) are starting to face real dates.”

Blank described the two sites as comparable in cost, though the actual numbers are not yet known.

Some $800 million of the construction cost will come from the Falcons, the National Football League and personal seat license sales, with Atlanta contributing $200 million from bonds backed by hotel-motel taxes.

The Falcons also committed $20 million for property acquisition, most of which will be consumed by the Friendship Baptist deal, and $70 million in infrastructure costs.

The state, however, will ultimately own the arena, and the Georgia Dome will be demolished.

Wednesday’s forum gave Blank and his team a chance to combat any criticism that churches will be forced to make way for the stadium and that communities could be harmed by the controversial project.

Blank was joined by the key architect and project contractors, as well as Falcons CEO Rich McKay and Penny McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. The Blank Foundation has committed to spend $15 million in the English Avenue, Vine City and Castleberry Hills neighborhoods on “human capital” projects, such as workforce development.

The Falcons’ leaders stressed their hope that the stadium transforms the surrounding neighborhoods, which are marked by poverty, high unemployment and environmental issues such as flooding.

“Our goal was really to help the community figure out how to make these rich, vital neighborhoods for people living there now and for people to come there,” McPhee said. “This is an area of decreasing populations. This is really the last frontier of our downtown.”

Blank said his team is committed to improving those neighborhoods beyond the opening of the new stadium, though it’s unclear how that would take shape.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want anybody to look back on this project in 10 or 15 years and say it’s another version of the Georgia Dome,” Blank said. “We want to see this as a catalyst … to long-term change in these communities.”

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