Hawks CEO asks Fulton County commissioners for support with vote

The multi-million dollar renovation underway at Philips Arena may require approval from the Fulton County Commission to make sure the availability of the public funds used to finance the work are ironclad.

Commission Chairman John Eaves said he received a surprise call this week from Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin imploring him and his colleagues to support a bond refinancing measure for the project, more than a month after the Atlanta City Council approved the deal.

“They called me to say there was a need to refinance the bonds,” he said. “My staff is reviewing this now and we’ll know more about this on Monday.”

But a spokesperson for the city of Atlanta said Fulton leaders’ approval was not necessary.

“Fulton County was not involved in the city’s $142.5 million contribution and no approvals from Fulton are needed,” the spokesperson, Jenna Garland, said in an email.

Philips is undergoing a $192.5 million renovation that supporters say will modernize the facility, the latest of Atlanta’s major sports venues to get an upgrade.

The Atlanta Hawks will contribute $50 million to the project, expected to be completed during the 2018-2019 season.

Eaves said he met with Hawks leadership Monday and learned that the county has to refinance some bonds to support the renovation deal. Fulton commissioners are due to discuss the Philips Arena bonds at their meeting Wednesday.

Dick Anderson, the county manager, said “it felt somewhat late in the game” for the county to be involved. Atlanta city council last month approved an agreement with College Park that will extend the car rental tax from 2038 to 2047, and is expected to raise at least $110 million. Details of the agreement were first publicized in November.

The county would not contribute any money to the deal, but would be a backstop on the bonds if the Hawks defaulted, Anderson said.

Lee Morris, a Fulton commissioner, said he got a call from Koonin Thursday night to brief him on the refinancing issue. Morris, who said he is opposed to taxpayer subsidies for professional sports venues, said he is inclined to support the measure because no money would come from Fulton’s general fund.

He said Koonin assumed commissioners who are members of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority were keeping their fellow leaders in the loop.

As a member of the Rec Authority, Fulton is a part owner of Philips Arena. A spokesperson for the Hawks declined to comment for this story.

Bob Ellis, a member of the Rec Authority and vice chairman of the Fulton County commission, said the delay in discussing the bond refinancing is “just sort of the natural course of negotiations.”

Though the bond refinancing is on the county agenda, Ellis said he wouldn’t be surprised if there was no discussion at all.

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