Legislators aim to keep Falcons downtown

Local hospitality leaders say a state House bill that would extend the hotel/motel tax collections that pay for the Georgia Dome is a good first step in keeping the Falcons from flying off.

State Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek) is sponsoring HB 903, which would move the sunset date of the taxes, currently pegged at 2020, to 2045. The bill also stipulates that the extension is contingent upon keeping the Falcons on the campus of the state-operated Georgia World Congress Center, the Dome's current home.

Where the Falcons play in the future has been the subject of much speculation over the past year. Built in 1992, the Georgia Dome is becoming one of the oldest stadiums in the National Football League. Observers have said that a new stadium will help persuade owners to bring the Super Bowl, the Holy Grail of sports, back to Atlanta.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank has hinted that he could move the team from the Dome, while prognosticators have wondered if Gwinnett County or other areas around the metro are in the team's sights. One speculated option -- building a stadium in Doraville in DeKalb County -- was rejected by the city's leaders in October.

William Pate, chief executive officer and president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, said of the House bill, "It's an acknowledgment that the most productive path is to keep the Atlanta Falcons downtown. I think this is what [the Falcons] want. I think this is what everybody wants."

Burkhalter, who has had Falcons season tickets since 1989, said he wrote the legislation because time is of the essence to get a deal in place. While 2020 seems far away, putting together plans for a new stadium as well as building it will take several years, he said in an interview Thursday. The sooner the Falcons know a funding mechanism is in place, the easier it will be to begin making decisions.

"The timeline for these things are not as short as you think they should be," he said. "All I'm trying to do is set the stage for positive negotiations with the Falcons."

Falcons President Rich McKay said in a statement Thursday, “We are aware that Representative Burkhalter filed legislation that would extend the hotel/motel tax, a percentage of which currently funds the debt financing for the Georgia Dome.

“We see this as a positive step toward fruitful discussions with all parties involved regarding a new NFL stadium. Beyond that, it is premature to comment.”

The Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which oversees the Dome's operations, this past Tuesday appointed Dan Graveline, the GWCC's former executive director, to be a consultant on many fronts, including on the future of the Dome or any sports facility that would replace it.

The authority also has commissioned a study to determine whether the Dome should be updated or if a new facility should be built and with which option: open-air, a retractable roof or another dome. Results could be released as early as spring.

"I think this show of support by the state, in my mind at least, bodes well," Harvey Newman, a professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, said of HB 903. "I welcome this sort of enabling legislation."

State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, is a co-sponsor of HB 903.  The bill is in a Ways and Means subcommittee, and it could have a hearing late next week. Burkhalter said Sen. Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone) has shown interest in the bill in his chamber.

Burkhalter is a member of the GWCCA's legislative oversight committee and was a leading candidate to replace Graveline as executive director until he withdrew his name Jan. 5.

He said discussions he's had with Falcons representatives in the past six months lead him to believe the team wants to stay downtown. The chatter about moving elsewhere has been, he believes, pushed by developers more than the Falcons.

Dome supporters said the facility has proved it can pay for itself. The bonds used to build the $214 million stadium may be paid for by 2017, three years earlier than their sunset. In addition to two Super Bowls, the Dome has been home to several SEC championships, soccer games, concerts including U2, graduations, the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four and conventions.

Central Atlanta Progress President A.J. Robinson said the state's involvement is key to any discussions with the Falcons and provides momentum.

"Getting reauthorized is a good first step in keeping the Falcons in the downtown community," said Robinson.

But he said it's not just about building a stadium. The Falcons and the Dome are part of the city's overall destination package.

"It's all part of the visitor experience," he said.

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