Mercedes-Benz Stadium falls behind schedule

AJC exclusive: Target for opening pushed back to June 1, 2017, affecting new soccer team

Construction of the downtown stadium that will become home to the Atlanta Falcons and a new professional soccer team won’t be completed in time for a long-planned March 2017 opening.

The new target date for completion of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is June 1, 2017, Arthur Blank, owner of the Falcons and Major League Soccer team Atlanta United, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview Thursday.

Blank attributed the delay to the design process for the steel structure that will support the stadium’s complex retractable roof and massive video board.

He said the delay will add to the cost of the $1.4 billion project but declined to say how much. He said he’ll bear the additional cost, as required by his stadium deal with the city and state.

If the new target date is achieved, the stadium would still open in time for the start of the Falcons’ planned first season there. NFL exhibition games are played in August, and the regular season opens in September.

But the delay means Blank’s soccer team won’t have use of its home stadium for the first three months of the 2017 season, slated to be Atlanta United’s debut season. MLS teams’ 34-game schedules run from early March until late October.

Blank said Atlanta United remains committed to beginning play in 2017 and “fully anticipates” playing all 17 of its home games in the new stadium that season, meaning it would play on the road through the first three months of the schedule. But he said an alternate temporary venue will be lined up in Atlanta for the soccer team if needed, with a decision on that possibility coming later this year.

Construction of the 71,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium began in early 2014 and continues with as many as 1,400 workers on site daily. The delay stems from two of the stadium’s signature features: an eight-piece retractable roof that is supposed to open and close in seven minutes and a 58-foot-high oval video board incorporated into the roof opening.

Challenges in completing the design of the steel structure for the roof and video board have backed up the project and are the primary factors in revising the target date for completion, Blank said.

“It’s a complex building,” he said. “Particularly, the steel is complicated; the roof is complicated; the halo scoreboard is complicated. The design drawings leading up to fabrication and eventually erection (of the steel structure) took longer than anybody expected because of the complexity.”

Blank said progress is being made on those designs by lead architect HOK and its subcontractors.

Steel work continued at the construction site Thursday. Blank said placement of steel for the roof will accelerate in the spring. In the end, he said, the roof and video board will look and function as shown in the renderings that have been released publicly.

“There will be no compromise at all,” he said. “It’s going to be a unique, one-of-a-kind stadium.”

Although Blank said he has “absolutely zero doubt” that the Falcons will open the 2017 season in the stadium and that college-football events will be played as scheduled in the building that season, this delay leaves relatively little margin in the timeline for further problems.

The delay will require “compressing” more work into less time on the job site later this year, Blank said.

“What happens is … (subcontractors) have to work double-time, triple-time, whatever it may be,” he said. That will result in additional costs, which Blank said he has agreed to pay, although “I don’t know what the final numbers will be.” All cost overruns are the Falcons’ responsibility, according to the stadium deal.

“That is risk I assumed going into the project and one that I’m supporting,” Blank said.

The stadium deal called for $200 million in proceeds from bonds backed by Atlanta hotel-motel taxes to go toward stadium construction, with hundreds of millions of additional hotel-motel tax dollars — the exact amount depending on tax collections — going toward costs of financing, operating and maintaining the stadium over 30 years.

The Georgia Dome, the Falcons’ current home, is scheduled to be demolished before the start of the 2017 football season, provided the new stadium is on track for completion.

A Major League Soccer executive said Thursday the league is aware of the delay and not alarmed by it.

“MLS has extensive experience working collaboratively with our clubs on scheduling when dealing with delays on new stadiums,” Dan Courtemanche, the league’s executive vice president of communications, said. “In fact, only one club, (New York) Red Bulls in 2010, played their opening match in their new stadium. Most clubs went four-eight weeks on the road before their home opener when playing in a new venue. … Other clubs played in temporary venues.”

He cited seven examples of teams that opened new stadiums at least three months into a season.

“For us, it’s business as usual,” Courtemanche said of the Atlanta delay.