Kempner: Atlanta stadium’s roof an un-retractable business gamble


In a perfect-ish world, the super-expensive retractable roof on the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta would, you know, retract.

That it doesn’t yet, at least not automatically, might cause a twinge of embarrassment and some extra costs for the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United.

Rise up? How about “Open up!”

But the roof and its challenges are reminders that the $1.5-billion stadium is really a private business palace, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in public money involved.

There were easier, less costly ways to outfit the stadium with a sunroof.

Falcons and United owner Arthur Blank just opted for a riskier path that offers more glory.

His efforts to make a big architectural and engineering statement adds more cool to Atlanta without the public having to shoulder any more of the bill than if he had settled for plain vanilla. (Of course, Falcons ticket buyers surely will end up picking up much if the extra weight.)

The government’s contribution to the construction tab is capped at $200 million in hotel/motel taxes, but then it will shovel in hundreds of millions of dollars more for financing, operations and maintenance over the next 30 years. Does Atlanta have such an abundance of public dollars and such a dearth of community needs that local government — backed by the state legislature — should be subsidizing one for-profit business over others? Don’t get me started.

Back to the roof. Blank’s desire to do something grand downtown probably will be rewarded. The cooler the stadium, the greater the draw for fans, the more they may be willing to pay for the experience.

Is it working yet?

As the hard-hat crews at the stadium edge closer to finishing their work, curious fans and visitors often gather outside the gate to gawk and take photos. Security guards get peppered with questions about the roof — “Is it working yet?” — and about a giant bird sculpture near the building. A company executive told me it is believed to be the biggest falcon sculpture in the world. Someone keeps a log of such things?

“It’s beautiful,” a local teenager said when I asked about the stadium’s design.

I like the outside of the building, too. But there’s something about the expansive views inside big sports stadiums that are extra fascinating. The Mercedes-Benz Stadium offers that, plus a giant window looking out towards the city.

The stadium’s biggest other distinctions (aside from $2 hot dogs) are up above, rather than down on the field: a giant 360-degree oval video screen and that retractable roof, which when closed acts like a sort of skylight. Trying to get the engineering and steel right for both helped delay the stadium’s opening by months and racked up extra costs.

The retractable roof is supposed to open in an ever-widening oval like a camera aperture, (though I’ve seen some less pleasant descriptions online). It’s made up of eight petals, each essentially shaped like a pizza slice and weighing 500 tons.

I clambered up to the roof with Steve Cannon, CEO of Falcons’ parent AMB Group, and stood beside one petal. It was like I was standing next to an entire building, one that sits on rails and slides across the stationary part of the roof roughly 300 feet over fans heads.

“Rest assured”

“Great design is not easy,” Cannon told me. At which point he brought up the challenges builders surely had in erecting the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House.

Right now, the stadium has “a fully operational roof but it is not automated yet.” Huh?

They have a couple more tests involving maddeningly slow, petal-by-petal openings of the roof before they try to have them all simultaneously open.

Eventually, when everything is working right, the process is supposed to take about 11 minutes, with the panels creating the optical illusion of looking like they are revolving a bit. Or so I’m told.

“It will open this season, rest assured,” Cannon said during our rooftop chat.

A delay of a matter of months in a building that will last decades (he claims) is no biggie.

The retractable roof sounds like fun to watch.

Too bad most Falcons fans at the games won’t get to witness it in person, even after any construction bugs are worked out.

Blimp shot

Blank boasted that the Mercedes-Benz Stadium has “the most complicated roof design in the history of the world.” 

But because of NFL rules, the team will have to decide at least 90 minutes before kickoff whether to leave the roof open or closed.

Cannon told me Atlanta United fans will sometimes see the roof move to address weather changes during games. But Scott Jenkins, the stadium’s general manager, said he isn’t sure yet if Major League Soccer will set limits like those in the NFL.

So what might be one of the most “wow” parts of the stadium – the actual opening and closing motion of the roof – is most likely to occur when most fans aren’t there. People strolling Atlanta’s streets won’t have a clear view of the action either.

How will we see it?

“The blimp shot,” Cannon told me. “They are going to watch that.”

A camera crew on the blimp won’t hover over other stadiums to see retractable roofs in action, but they will over Atlanta, he assured me.

Which should be good for another business reason. Mercedes-Benz has plastered the stadium’s two-and-a-half acres of retractable roof with the automaker’s three-pointed star emblem.

Visible from space?

“It’s the largest corporate logo on Earth,” Cannon said. “And I’m pretty sure you can see it from the International Space Station.”

Everyone’s got different ideas about how to spend their money. And when it’s their money, that’s OK.

Maybe another wealthy person would have chosen to incorporate some feature that would be a little more visible to those of us more down to earth. You know, like outfitting the exterior of the stadium with a gargantuan glowing peanut that is automatically de-shelled at 9 p.m. each night.

Personally, I’m drawn to cheaper options. I hope they eventually offer roof-top tours to the public. (It doesn’t sound like they will. Cannon said no one had ever asked before I did.) Or how about an option to spend a few minutes harnessed and hanging horizontal over the lip of the open roof, watching the game below?

Just a thought.

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these columns:

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