Mercedes-Benz Stadium complaints trigger another GWCCA meeting

Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosted college football’s national championship game on Jan. 8 and will host the Super Bowl next year.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosted college football’s national championship game on Jan. 8 and will host the Super Bowl next year.

After expressing stern concerns to Falcons officials about several aspects of the operation of Mercedes-Benz Stadium at a meeting Tuesday, some Georgia World Congress Center Authority board members held an additional, unpublicized meeting about the subject Wednesday.

A GWCCA spokeswoman described Wednesday afternoon’s conference call of the board’s executive committee as “a special-circumstance meeting” to follow up on the discussion from the previous day.

“What precipitated it was, they felt a high level of sensitivity about the issue and wanted to get together and debrief on it,” Jennifer LeMaster, the GWCCA’s chief administrative officer, said Thursday. “They felt time was of the essence because of the circumstances and sensitivity of the topic.”

Several local media outlets, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, covered Tuesday's board meeting but were not informed in advance of Wednesday's committee session. The call was not recorded, LeMaster said. No action was taken, she said.

The only people on the 45-minute call were the six committee members, GWCCA executive director Frank Poe and the GWCCA’s legal counsel.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is owned by the state, and the GWCCA, a state agency subject to open-meetings and open-records laws, has an oversight role. The Falcons organization operates the stadium.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the GWCCA board peppered Falcons executives with questions and comments about the long delays to enter the stadium for college football’s national championship game Jan. 8, as well as about ongoing problems with exiting the stadium after large events and with the sound system.

Tuesday’s meeting lasted longer and was more contentious than customary for GWCCA board meetings, which are held monthly.

“In my 15 years, I’ve not heard this much comment from the board of directors,” said David Allman, the board’s chairman.

The board is particularly concerned about how the stadium functions for marquee events recruited to the city, such as the college-football championship game and next year’s Super Bowl.

“I think one of the concerns is we’ve heard a lot about good experience for the Falcons at Falcons games,” Allman said. “As a big component of economic development for the city of Atlanta and for the state of Georgia, we are in the business of attracting and retaining marquee events well beyond the Falcons.

“And we expect the same ratings for those events,” he told the Falcons executives, “that you expect for your own Falcons events.”

After Falcons senior vice president Mike Egan said the events are treated no differently, Allman replied: “Well, the results were markedly different.”

Stadium and playoff officials attributed the long waits to enter the stadium – as long as two hours for some fans – at the national title game to security changes and lengthy gate closings required by the U.S. Secret Service because of President Donald Trump’s attendance.

But Trump departed at halftime, and some concourses and exits were clogged as fans left after the overtime game.

GWCCA board members also strongly criticized the stadium’s sound system. Board member Phil Gingrey said the sound was inaudible from his seat during pregame ceremonies.

“You absolutely need to do a better job,” Gingrey told the Falcons officials, “because your reputation at a national level gets tainted. And it’s pretty hard to back that out as we go forward trying to attract these (events) to our great city of Atlanta. That sound system needs to be fixed – and fixed soon.”

Falcons officials acknowledged, both at Tuesday’s meeting and in previous interviews, the problems with the sound system and exiting the stadium.

Scott Jenkins, who works for the Falcons as the stadium’s general manager, called egress “probably our No. 1 issue” and said three additional sets of double doors and one overhead door will be installed in coming weeks as part of efforts to alleviate congestion leaving the building. The additional doors will open onto the outdoor plaza, called the “front porch,” at the east end of the stadium.

The doors will cost $185,000, which will be paid from a portion of the Atlanta hotel-motel tax dedicated to capital improvements for the stadium.

As for the sound system, Jenkins promised improvement, saying some adjustments have been made “and we’re going to continue working on it.”

In an interview, Jenkins said he understood the perspective of the board members.

“Hey, it’s a passionate group of people that care deeply about the community and about their experience, as do we, so I completely get where they’re coming from,” he said.

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