New stadium plan shifts, doesn’t cut, public money

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

A plan for the Atlanta Falcons to contribute an additional $100 million-plus upfront to a proposed downtown stadium would not cut the amount of public money ultimately committed to the project, according to documents obtained Tuesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The same percentage of Atlanta’s hotel-motel tax — 39.3 percent — would go into the stadium over 30 years in the revised plan as under the previous deal struck in December. The difference is that less money would be borrowed initially by government agencies against future tax proceeds, leaving more of the tax money available to the Falcons for “maintenance, operation and improvement” of the stadium later.

The change was designed to soothe political concerns raised by Gov. Nathan Deal and others by shifting the way public money is committed to the controversial project.

Documents obtained by the AJC under Georgia’s Open Records Act reflect a work in progress but provide the first record of the deal’s direction since earlier terms unraveled because of the political concerns. It is not known if the deal has been further amended since the newspaper submitted its open-records request late last week.

Falcons and Georgia World Congress Center Authority officials declined to comment on the documents. A spokesman for Deal, Brian Robinson, said, “You’re seeing an option that was on the table at one point in time.” He declined to say whether it is the current plan.

The documents include a Jan. 25 draft of a 75-page “memorandum of understanding” between the GWCCA and the Falcons. They describe a plan that would shift responsibility for issuing the bonds backed by hotel-motel taxes from the state to the city of Atlanta’s development authority.

Such a move likely would preclude the need for an unpopular vote in the Georgia Legislature, which would have had to raise the GWCCA borrowing limit for the original plan.

A final deal still would require approvals from the city of Atlanta, Fulton County and the GWCCA board.

The draft of the memorandum of understanding does not include exact figures for the team and public contributions. However, a one-page outline of “revisions” states that $200 million of the stadium cost would be funded by tax-free bonds issued by Invest Atlanta and “up to $860 million” by the Falcons. Those amounts apparently include paying off the bonds on the Georgia Dome at some point.

Under the December deal - the result of two years of negotiation between the Falcons and the GWCCA - the team was expected to contribute about $700 million upfront and the state about $300 million in bond proceeds. But Deal said the public was being asked to put too much into the package and signaled it would not get legislative approval.

In subsequent talks, additional upfront money from the Falcons had been proposed as a way to make the deal more politically palatable and to shift bonding responsibility to the city.

As apparent concessions to the Falcons for agreeing to the shift, the amended deal appears headed for other changes that would benefit the team.

The revised deal will give the GWCCA “much narrower approval rights … in the design, construction and operation phases of the project” and more limited redevelopment rights for the current Georgia Dome site, according to the documents obtained by the newspaper. The Falcons prefer to use the Dome site largely for parking. Plans call for demolishing the Dome after the new stadium is built nearby.

The new terms should reflect that the state “has minimal risk, if any, and is truly the beneficiary of a billion dollar investment on its property,” one document stated.

The portion of Atlanta’s hotel-motel tax proceeds that will be devoted to the new stadium was set at 39.3 percent - the same as committed to Dome bonds - when the Georgia Legislature three years ago authorized an extension of the tax through 2050. With the amended stadium plan calling for about $100 million less in bonds to be repaid from those tax proceeds, the draft obtained by the AJC spells out a series of mechanisms through which any “excess” hotel-motel tax proceeds go the stadium.

Those include using such funds for refurbishment, maintenance and capital improvements to the stadium and possibly other operating expenses.

As in the December deal, the Falcons would be responsible for maintenance and capital improvement costs that exceed excess hotel-motel tax proceeds. But with less hotel-motel money going into the deal upfront, more would be available to offset such expenses, relieving a potentially onerous obligation to the team.