Work crews cover the playing field at the Georgia Dome with a tarp in preparation for the upcoming Monster Truck event. Mayor Kasim Reed’s argument that Atlanta needs a new stadium is being augmented by a new charge: the Georgia Dome is in need of hundreds of millions in renovations, including a new roof.
Photo: Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com
Photo: Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

Repair costs for aging Dome disputed

As his flight descended into Atlanta recently, Kasim Reed caught a view of the city’s skyline. The passenger next to him took note of the Georgia Dome.

“You really going to knock the Dome down?” the stranger asked the Atlanta mayor. “It’s beautiful.”

“You think that’s nice?” the mayor replied. “You wait ‘til we get finished.”

The Dome is in good shape, at least in the view of many fans and even organizers of some of the venue’s biggest events. But Reed and others who favor spending public money to help build a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons have shifted their message to a skeptical public in recent weeks. The Dome, they say, will need an overhaul so extensive it would cost more than the public’s proposed contribution toward a new $1 billion stadium.

The mayor highlighted that argument during recent interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, telling the newspaper the Dome would need up to $350 million in work over the next five to seven years.

Yet Reed significantly overstated one part of the need, telling the AJC that replacing the stadium’s current roof would cost at least $200 million. That’s seven to 10 times higher than the estimates of $19.5 million to $30 million cited in studies commissioned by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.

Sonji Jacobs Dade, spokeswoman for the mayor, agreed Tuesday that the cost of the roof would be $30 million. But she stuck with Reed’s overall cost estimate of $350 million, which she said was given to the mayor by the GWCCA.

The GWCCA has commissioned two studies that looked at what costs the Dome would face if it remains in operation. One, done in 2010, pegged the figure at $401 million, the bulk of it apparently not to replace failing material but to renovate and expand the 21-year-old building to sustain its marketability over the next quarter-century. Another study, in 2011, put the cost at up to $115 million just for basic maintenance, repairs and updates needed by 2020.

Still, Atlanta chief operating officer Duriya Farooqui, one of Reed’s top lieutenants, last week said her understanding from the GWCCA is that just to retain status quo, keeping the Dome “appropriately repaired and kept up to its current state over the next five to seven years, [is] going to require well in excess of $300 million.”

The various numbers and lack of clarity come even as the mayor and city councilmembers say they plan to give the public more complete information on the proposed new stadium, starting with a public meeting today at Atlanta City Hall.

Calling a stadium out of date and saying it will be cost-prohibitive to bring it up to standard is often used to gain public support for a new facility, said Neil deMause, author of a book that criticizes stadium deals across the nation.

“It’s absolutely traditional for public officials and teams to cycle through a number of plays in the new stadium playbook,” deMause said.

Big public facilities often need ongoing work. The GWCCA said it has invested about $40 million in Dome renovations, maintenance and repairs since the facility opened in 1992. GWCCA spokeswoman Jennifer LeMaster said the Dome is not currently in need of extensive repairs, but “any public venue that welcomes millions of people annually will require ongoing repairs as well as upgrades to address customer requirements.”

The Falcons, the Dome’s biggest customer, have insisted on a new building when their lease expires later this decade, regardless of any Georgia Dome renovations.

A February 2011 study said that by 2020, the Dome would need $44.5 million in maintenance work and $35 million to $70 million in capital improvements, including the new roof, technology updates and repairs to plumbing, electrical and mechanical facilities.

The 2010 study, which arrived at the $401 million total, included adding 369,000 square feet of additional space at a cost of $118 million, as well as what were described as “major renovations,” “minor renovations,” a new roof and $23 million to renovate the stadium bowl.

Kansas City-based architecture firm Populous, which did the studies, declined to comment this week.

GWCCA executive director Frank Poe cited the higher figure in December when discussing what would happen if a new stadium deal collapsed, the Falcons built their own facility elsewhere and the Dome had to fend for itself without an NFL tenant.

“If you walk that scenario on out … you’re going to have a capital infusion of about $400 million go back into the Dome to keep it relevant for the next 20 to 25 years,” Poe said. Even so, he said, the Dome would lose $1 million to $2 million per year without an NFL team playing in it.

Expensive repairs and renovations are not unusual for stadiums of the Dome’s age.

This month, for example, arbitrators sided with the St. Louis Rams’ argument that the Edward Jones Dome — built three years after the Georgia Dome — needs $700 million of work to be a “first-tier” facility. And the Carolina Panthers want public funds toward a $250 million renovation of Bank of America Stadium, which opened four years after the Dome.

Aside from the Falcons, there is no evidence that the Georgia Dome has fallen out of favor with marquee events. College basketball’s Final Four will be played there in April for the third time in 12 years, and the SEC Championship game is under contract through 2017.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive told the AJC before December’s game that “we’ve not been unhappy at all” with the facility. He said a proposed new stadium “reaffirms the fact Atlanta is committed to staying at the forefront and therefore even makes the game more attractive for us there.”

100 Black Men of Atlanta chief executive officer John Grant said the facility has always been well maintained for the group’s Bank of America Atlanta Football Classic, which has been held at the Dome since it opened in 1992. Grant supports a new stadium, reasoning that as time goes on the Dome will need more upgrading.

But fans interviewed by the AJC continue to question the need to replace the Dome.

Atlanta lawyer Jonathan Ganz attended the SEC Championship and NFC Championship games. “As I sat in that Dome for both of those games, not once did I think this is an inadequate facility,” said Ganz, 38.

Reed acknowledged he receives similar messages by e-mail, Twitter — and from the guy beside him on that recent flight.

“He left the plane saying he disagreed, that I was wrong,” the mayor recalled.

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