Maybe Falcons owner Arthur Blank should count himself lucky he’s on the verge of getting any public funding for a new $1 billion stadium.
The billionaire’s tentative agreement with Atlanta’s mayor for $200 million in public funds toward the construction of a retractable-roof stadium comes amid growing public backlash for using taxpayer support to finance pro football facilities.
Efforts to renovate or build new NFL stadiums in Miami, Charlotte and Minneapolis have faced the same sort of opposition that led Gov. Nathan Deal and state lawmakers to punt the debate to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Polls here and elsewhere have shown widespread opposition to the public financing of sports facilities, although Reed has said the support is much higher when only voters in Atlanta are surveyed. Yet despite the pushback, the public often ends up ponying up the money.
Benjamin Flowers, a Georgia Tech architecture professor who studies skyscrapers and stadiums, calls this phenomenon “the great paradox” of stadium construction.
“The history of the last 30 years is almost uniform public opposition to public funding of stadiums. And yet, at the same time, we’ve seen time and time again public funding for stadiums for franchises,” he said. “There appears to be a systematic de-linking of the public’s opinion about this matter and the actual actions political leaders take to fund these projects.”
You don’t need to dig too deep to find the latest flashpoints:
• The Miami Dolphins are asking for up to $200 million in taxpayer support to renovate Sun Life Stadium, but the NFL franchise is facing opposition from residents who want the team owner to pay for it himself. Supporters aren’t helped by the Miami Marlins, which used public money for a new baseball stadium and then jettisoned star players after a disappointing season.
• Critics of a public financing deal for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium urged the state to revisit the negotiations after Atlanta’s stadium deal was announced. The Minnesota deal approved last year devotes about $350 million in state dollars and another $150 million from a local hospitality tax to a new stadium for the team.
• North Carolina faces a divisive split between state lawmakers and officials from the leading city over a plan to use public funds to finance $200 million upgrades to Bank of America Stadium. Charlotte officials have embraced the effort, but state officials have so far balked.
It wasn’t so long ago that the public picked up the entire tab on many stadiums. The Georgia Dome, which would be demolished in the deal, was 100 percent publicly funded. But politicians are, at least initially, more reluctant to support these projects at a time when budgets are being squeezed. Often, threats that a team could move elsewhere loom large in the negotiations.
The stadium agreement in Atlanta was years in the making. Blank wanted a new facility that could compete for the Super Bowl and other elite attractions, the Georgia World Congress Center feared being cut out of a deal that would make the state-owned Georgia Dome obsolete and Reed wanted to tie the Falcons to downtown Atlanta for decades.
To seal the deal, Blank agreed to chip in more than $800 million for the stadium and another $50 million for infrastructure. The money will come from the Falcons, the NFL and sales of personal seat licenses. Blank’s foundation will also spend $15 million to support the struggling neighborhood surrounding the stadium.
The public contribution for stadium construction will be capped at $200 million that will be generated through bonds backed by the hotel-motel tax collection by the city of Atlanta.
Atlanta’s City Council and the Georgia World Congress Center, which would own the facility, must also vote on the plans. And many questions remain, including who would pick up the tab if the infrastructure costs soar to the $200 million level Reed once predicted.
“A lot of promises were made in 1991 with the present Dome. Those promises to the community were broken,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who worries infrastructure costs could bring the public’s share far higher than $200 million. “Until that’s resolved, I’m not going to be supportive of it.”
Stadium supporters insist the hard-fought deal is as favorable than any other stadium agreement reached in recent years. And Blank, who sits on the board of directors of Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, said it will be remembered as one that creates jobs and reshapes the face of downtown Atlanta.
“This is a solution that represents a win-win for everyone at the table,” he said.