Controversial parking for Falcons fits into bigger plan, official says

A $23 million proposal tucked into Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget plan to extend a downtown Atlanta parking deck will force lawmakers to again confront a debate over the state’s growing role in the new Atlanta Falcons stadium.

Yet the proponents of the plan are taking a far more direct route than last year, when a $17 million proposal for a parking deck near the stadium was added to the budget just days before the legislative session ended.

This time, lawmakers will have months to vet the funding for the second phase of the parking deck. And Georgia World Congress Center Authority officials are aggressively casting it as an economic development tool — and the first phase of a broader vision for the complex.

“Everybody learns lessons,” Frank Poe, the center’s executive director, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “This helps us tell our story about why parking is so important to our campus, and why it fits in with our overall strategy.”

The strategy is not without risks, as it gives critics more time to question why the state’s tab is rising for projects linked to the stadium even after lawmakers refused to issue bonds for the $1.4 billion project.

Already, the state is set to spend more than $30 million for parking and land needed for the site, and a tax break for construction could be worth tens of millions more. Critics say Arthur Blank, the billionaire owner of the Falcons, should pay for the parking improvements himself.

“Our priorities are so mixed up. We have state employees on food stamps, who have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a Democrat whose Atlanta district stretches near the stadium. “Mr. Blank has the money to build his own parking deck. Well, he’s got the money to build his own stadium if he wants.”

Executives with the Falcons didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

A parking windfall

The parking projects would add more than 1,000 spaces to the complex, helping to replace some 1,300 lost in the construction. Poe said about 5 percent of the time it would be used for the NFL team, which will play about eight to 10 games at the stadium once it opens in 2017, and the rest will be devoted to conventions, trade shows and other events at the stadium.

“You wouldn’t build something like this parking deck for just eight games. You build it because it’s sustainable for all the other businesses we have on our campus,” Poe said. “You build that capacity for all the other events, and that’s why it makes economic sense.”

But the proposals form the backbone of a broader vision for the future of the bustling convention center, which faces increasing competition from domestic rivals, and the adjoining Centennial Olympic Park, which the state also oversees.

The World Congress Center will ask lawmakers for $20 million or so over the next five years for projects for the park, Poe said. On the wish list are plans to expand an amphitheater, replace a squat administrative office with a sparkling new multiuse center, extend a water feature and convert the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s parkside offices into more green space.

Deal’s spending plan this year also includes an initial $2 million to elevate and repave Andrew Young International Boulevard, the road that runs through the park and is set to be turned into a pedestrian mall.

Perhaps the biggest linchpin to Poe’s plans, though, won’t show up in a budget proposal. He wants a new hotel on a parcel of state land where the Georgia Dome now sits. The agency sent a request on Friday seeking developers interested in building a hotel with at least 800 rooms on the state-owned land. Poe said 80 firms have already expressed interest.

The convention center would lease the land to a developer who would front the construction costs, though state and local tax incentives could be involved in sweetening the pot.

“We don’t see ourselves in the business of managing hotels,” Poe said. “We want to partner with someone who has that expertise, and we think it could be a great opportunity.”

An economic impact debate

The state funding for land and parking is a pittance compared with revenue from the Atlanta hotel-motel tax that will go to the stadium.

After state lawmakers balked in 2013 at financing the stadium, the city agreed to issue bonds that will net $200 million for construction costs. Hundreds of millions of dollars in additional hotel-motel tax funds are slated to go toward financing, operating and maintaining the stadium over 30 years.

In the next few months, Poe and allies will make their pitch to lawmakers with a focus on the economic development potential of the convention center and its new jewel, the stadium. The entire complex supports 15,000 jobs a year, he said, and has an economic impact of $1.4 billion annually.

Critics say there’s no way of knowing whether that’s accurate.

“The economic development argument in Georgia grows tiresome because they never put their money where their mouth is,” said William Perry of the Georgia chapter of the Common Cause watchdog group. “They never have a study or a legitimate measure of the impact, and under Georgia law they aren’t required to do so.”

Poe can rely on the support of Deal, who declined to comment on the plan but sent a signal by including it in his budget. And he’ll also likely have the support of state Rep. Terry England, the chairman of the House’s budget-writing committee, who said during the last debate that he sees the parking deck proposal as needed infrastructure for the convention center.

Others, such as state Sen. Steve Gooch, are taking a wait-and-see approach. The Dahlonega Republican said he has no stance yet on the fate of the project, but he has firsthand experience that could help influence his decision.

“There’s a parking shortage. I went over there last week to try to find a parking space and I couldn’t find one,” Gooch said. “And if this can help expand tourism, then it deserves a debate.”

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