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Falcons vow to be in new stadium by 2017

By Jeremiah McWilliamsLeon Stafford and Tim Tucker

The Atlanta Falcons will consider moving to the suburbs if the team does not get a new $1 billion downtown stadium built by 2017, a team executive told a packed City Council meeting on Wednesday.

“We would have no choice but to consider pursuing another option in metro Atlanta” if negotiations break down, Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay said. “Please don’t let anybody say that’s a threat. No, that’s just a reality of what we have to do as our lease is about to end.”

While it wasn’t the first time the team had expressed that position, McKay’s reiteration was significant given events of recent weeks, as the proposal for a new stadium built with partial public funding encountered political opposition.

“We could do it (build a new stadium) for a lot less cost (elsewhere). That would not be our first choice,” McKay told a gallery of council members and citizens, adding that he was relaying the sentiments of Falcons owner Arthur Blank. “We think (downtown) is where the deal should be done, but it is our intent to play in a new stadium in 2017.”

McKay rejected the idea of making extensive repairs and renovations to the Georgia Dome, calling them a “short-term solution.” He said it would not make any sense for the Falcons to stay in the Dome past 2017, when the team’s lease could expire.

During a public comment period, several residents said they opposed any use of public money to build a new stadium.

Others complained of what they called a lack of transparency as the Falcons and state officials hammered out various proposals behind closed doors. Still others said that, if a new stadium is built, it must help improve the struggling neighborhoods around it in a way that the current dome never has.

The Falcons late last year reached a non-binding agreement with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which owns the Dome, on a plan to replace the team’s current home with a retractable roof stadium nearby. The team would pay more than two-thirds of the construction cost.

But the proposal to use $300 million in state-issued bonds for the remaining portion ran into political trouble at the state Capitol, where legislators would have had to approve.

In recent weeks Mayor Kasim Reed and the city have taken a leading role in trying to keep the project on track and devise alternate financing. Wednesday’s hearing — and another planned for next week — grew out of those efforts.

Duriya Farooqui, the city’s chief operating officer, said the terms now under consideration - which include bonds issued by the city’s development authority, rather than the state - would be a good deal for Atlanta taxpayers. Reed has said he would seek a vote in the City Council for any stadium financing.

The bonds would be backed with hotel-motel tax money, paid mostly by people from outside Georgia, she said.

“There are a slew of benefits that should be considered” in a new stadium, including tax revenue and national and international recognition, Farooqui said. Marquee sporting events “are so sought after, and the competition is so cutthroat, that if you don’t have a facility that is competitive, we as the city of Atlanta will not be able to compete for them,” she said.

Farooqui said new stadiums in Houston, Phoenix, Indianapolis and Arlington, Tex. were paid for with more public money than is being contemplated in Atlanta. They involved increases in sales taxes, hotel taxes, parking taxes, ticket surcharges and other levies, she said.

“For the residents of the city of Atlanta, we want to be clear that the discussion today has no bearing on property taxes or any increase in taxes that would be applied,” Farooqui said.

Under the latest plan the upfront public contribution to construction would be cut to $200 million, and the bonds would be issued by Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency.

Brian McGowan, president of Invest Atlanta, said bonds would not be backed by the city’s general fund, and would not jeopardize Atlanta’s credit rating or ability to issue other bonds for expensive projects.

Several speakers were skeptical about projections of what it would cost to maintain and repair the 21-year-old Georgia Dome. Those needs have been cited by backers of a new stadium.

In recent interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Reed said the Dome would need up to $350 million in work over the next five to seven years - more than the upfront public investment being considered for the new facility.

“Every time I hear the repair number for the Dome, it goes up,” said Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, who represents part of Buckhead.

Robin Gagnon, a resident of Castleberry Hill, said the neighborhood near the Dome has been disenfranchised in the stadium debate and wants a voice. She quoted from a petition circulating in the community: “We feel the process is proceeding without our neighborhood’s vital and concerned input.”

Also on Wednesday, City Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr. presented a thick stack of documents detailing what residents of nearby communities want from a new stadium.

Among the requests: better parking enforcement, job training and jobs inside the stadium, millions of dollars for a housing trust fund that could help rehabilitate homes, repairs for the crumbling Herndon Stadium at Morris Brown College and a pedestrian promenade from the Vine City Walmart to Centennial Olympic Park.

“The community has a long list,” Young said. “The community deserves a hearing.”

McKay said in an interview with the AJC after the meeting that the Falcons have not pursued any deals or sites in the suburbs. He said team owner Arthur Blank’s direction for 3 1/2 years has been “we need to make this work downtown if we can.”

Whatever happens, McKay said the Falcons won’t consider a move outside metro Atlanta. “That’s not who Arthur Blank is,” he said. “This will be a metro Atlanta stadium.”

Blank is on the board of directors of Cox Enterprises, whose media holdings include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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