A state board on Friday approved terms for a new downtown Atlanta Falcons stadium, clearing the way for two other possible votes next week that could effectively seal a deal.
The move comes after more than two years of negotiations marked by starts, stops and sharp turns — but only days after latest version of the deal was cemented.
The unanimous approval by the board of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority leaves an upcoming vote by the Atlanta City Council as the stadium’s last major political hurdle. The City Council could consider the deal as early as Monday, when it has a regularly scheduled meeting. Approval also is needed from Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, which meets Tuesday.
Neither the City Council nor Invest Atlanta has committed to action on the stadium at those meetings, but the proposed deal seems to be suddenly on a fast track.
“I don’t think it’s moving too fast. They’ve been in negotiations for 2 1/2 years now,” said Duriya Farooqui, the city of Atlanta’s chief operating officer, who attended the GWCCA meeting. “We’ve heard the public, and we’ve heard the council’s input. We think it’s a good deal for the city, the state and the Falcons, and that has been validated today.”
City Council members have given mixed signals about a vote next week. One member, Felicia Moore, said Thursday that “if the train leaves that soon, it will leave without me.”
Others, though, said it’s been sufficiently vetted.
“Let’s get on with the business of the community,” said council member Ivory Lee Young, whose district includes the stadium area. “Let’s get on with this and move on to bigger things. Because we can certainly use a better stadium than the one we have now, and we have figured out a way to pay for it. What is our delay?”
The GWCCA vote authorized the agency’s executive director, Frank Poe, to sign five agreements related to the stadium, provided the City Council and Invest Atlanta approve.
“I feel very good about where we are,” Poe said. “It’s been a long two years’ worth of analysis and study and looking at different options and negotiations at different levels.”
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, in a statement, called Friday’s vote “an important step towards a new stadium,” which he said would be “an iconic asset” for downtown. Blank is on the board of directors of Cox Enterprises, whose media holdings include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The documents approved by the GWCCA board cover all of the major deal points, although many more definitive contracts would have to be negotiated before construction would begin in perhaps mid-2014.
The proposed deal calls for $200 million in public money toward construction, plus interest on the 30-year bonds that would provide those funds, and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars more toward the stadium’s operation and maintenance over the years.
Bond payments and other money would come from the 39.3-percent portion of Atlanta’s 7-cents-per-dollar hotel-motel tax mandated by state law to go to the stadium. The state legislature in 2010 extended the tax specifically for a new stadium.
The Falcons, the NFL and personal seat license sales would pay the remaining $800 million or so toward construction of the estimated $1 billion facility. The Falcons would be responsible for all operating and maintenance costs not covered by hotel-motel tax proceeds, would retain all stadium revenue and would pay the GWCCA rent of $2.5 million a year, with 2 percent annual increases.
“I’m shocked by how they are fast-tracking this deal. It’s an attempt to hide the details from the public. It’s shocking how quickly this is moving,” said William Perry, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, who attended Friday’s meeting.
He took aim at the terms of the deal that would set aside two suites in the stadium for the GWCCA’s use for most events. The deal also calls for Invest Atlanta to get free seats to some events and allows the GWCCA to buy 30 tickets each year for Super Bowl games – 50 if the event is in Atlanta.
“That’s taxpayer money that’s funding these tickets – money that should go to other things,” Perry said.
GWCCA officials say it’s a practice they’ve followed for years to try to attract more events.
“We’re in the entertainment business. That’s what we do,” Poe said. “The clients we have produce events, and that’s part of the job. We’re not going to run from it.”
Friday’s vote was actually the GWCCA board’s third on the stadium. It voted in February 2011 to enter negotiations with the Falcons and in December 2012 to approve the framework of a deal. That plan, which called for the state to issue the construction bonds, unraveled a month later when legislators balked at the idea and Gov. Nathan Deal punted the project to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, an ardent supporter of the stadium.
The deal now calls for Invest Atlanta to issue the bonds. A number of other elements of the deal also have been reworked, including recent commitments from the Falcons to contribute $50 million toward infrastructure improvements, $15 million toward the surrounding neighborhood and $20 million toward property acquisition.
“The collaboration between the state, city and Falcons over the last eight weeks has been phenomenal,” GWCCA board chairman Tim Lowe said. “It’s been a tough road, but I think we have probably the greatest public-private partnership the state has ever seen with the city, the Falcons and the World Congress Center Authority.”
What’s next in stadium saga
Monday: The Atlanta City Council could vote on a funding plan at a regularly scheduled meeting, though it isn’t clear if it will do so.
Tuesday: Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, meets and could consider the plan.
If the deal is approved soon by City Council and Invest Atlanta:
By April 30: The Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority plan to hire a lead architect.
By May 31: The Falcons plan to hire a general contractor.
By Aug. 1: The team and the GWCCA plan to settle on a site. The parties prefer a site just south of the Georgia Dome, but if they can’t purchase land owned by two churches by then, they would shift to a backup spot 1/2 mile north of the Dome.
By Oct. 31: Preliminary schematic drawings are to be completed.
Construction on the stadium would probably need to begin around mid-2014 if the franchise plans for the stadium to be opened in time for the 2017 NFL season.
A sampling of differences between the new stadium deal and the Georgia Dome deal:
—- The Georgia Dome cost about $215 million to build. The new stadium is expected to cost about $1 billion.
—- Public money paid for 100 percent of the construction cost of the Dome and would pay for 20 percent of that cost ($200 million) for the new stadium, with the Falcons, the NFL and personal seat license sales paying the rest.
—- The Georgia World Congress Center Authority operates the Dome. The Falcons would operate the new stadium.
—- The Falcons would be responsible for all maintenance and operating expenses in the new stadium that exceed available hotel-motel tax funds, while the GWCCA, a state agency, is responsible for such expenses in the Dome. (In both cases, 39.3 percent of a 7-cents-per-dollar Atlanta hotel-motel tax goes to the stadium.)
—- The Falcons would retain all revenue from the new stadium, including that generated for the facility by other events, compared to a profit-sharing arrangement with the GWCCA in the Dome.