Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed reclaimed the reins of the $1 billion Falcons stadium negotiations Tuesday, announcing he's done his part to secure land for his preferred site and urging state officials to do the same.
In a forceful press conference, Reed said the city has reached a deal for the Falcons to buy Friendship Baptist Church for $19.5 million, one of two churches that must sell for the stadium to be built on a site just south of the Georgia Dome. Reed called on the Falcons and city to “support each other” and for state officials, who walked away from negotiations with Mount Vernon Baptist last week, to revive talks with that church.
“I took significant political risk to support this stadium. I have been unwavering in my support for this stadium. I didn’t do it so that whatever happens, just happens,” said Reed, who led the charge to use $200 million in hotel-motel taxes to partially finance construction of the stadium. “I think I’ve done enough in this process to ask that they try harder. Because that’s what folks ask me to do, right?”
The Georgia World Congress Center Authority, a state agency, broke off talks with Mount Vernon after weeks of negotiations when the church rejected a $6.2 million offer. Documents later revealed the state and church were $14 million apart when an Aug. 1 deadline, self-imposed by the Falcons and the GWCCA, arrived for securing the property.
While the city reached a deal to buy Friendship Baptist’s land with Falcons funds, state dollars must go toward the purchase of Mount Vernon. Without securing the latter property, the deal with Friendship and the hopes for the south site are moot.
The Falcons quickly issued a statement applauding the deal with Friendship Baptist. However, last week the team began a feasibility study of the alternate site a half-mile north of the Dome, located off Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard.
“We commend the mayor, city officials and the congregation of Friendship Baptist Church for all of their hard work in reaching a tentative agreement for the acquisition of the church property,” read the statement. “This is certainly a positive development for the south site; however, other significant issues and requirements remain unresolved on that site.”
The GWCCA reacted with similar caution.
“We applaud the mayor’s efforts for his work with Friendship Baptist Church,” GWCCA spokeswoman Jennifer LeMaster said, “and certainly the Authority would welcome a conversation with the mayor in regards to Mount Vernon.”
The GWCCA reiterated Tuesday that its $6.2 million offer to Mount Vernon was based on the highest appraisal received for the church’s property. The GWCCA said — and Reed acknowledged during the news conference — that it is not allowed to offer more than appraised value under state law.
There were not similar constraints in negotiations for Friendship because the funds would come from private money from the Falcons organization.
LeMaster said Tuesday “there would not be a path” to the GWCCA buying Mount Vernon for more than appraised value without private investment. She added the GWCCA and the Falcons haven’t had discussions “at this time” about whether the team would be willing to contribute additional private funds toward that purchase.
The Falcons, for their part, declined to address whether they are open to contributing money to reach a deal with Mount Vernon.
Reed did not say whether the city has identified private funds that could help secure Mount Vernon and stopped short of calling on the Falcons to fund a portion of that deal.
“For two years, my commitment to the Falcons organization has been unwavering,” he said, responding to a reporter’s question about the Falcons’ plans to build on the north site. “So this (suggestion of) me needing the Falcons? You ought to reverse that. It’s mutual. I believe in mutual respect.”
The mayor has some leverage on his side, too. He noted that he and the city council must approve a $30 million stadium community benefits plan before any bonds will be issued for stadium construction.
City officials are pushing for the southern location due to its proximity to two MARTA stations and a potential future multi-model station to be built in the Gulch. The Falcons originally favored the north site because it is larger and more flexible for positioning a stadium, but the team later declared itself neutral.
Lloyd Hawk, chairman of Friendship Baptist’s board of trustees, stood next to Reed during Tuesday’s press conference and said afterward that the church struck a deal because it, too, believes the south site poses the most promise. Friendship officials must take the agreement to its congregation for final approval.
“If we didn’t think there was a benefit to the church and community, then months ago we would’ve said no,” he said.
Mount Vernon officials remain mum on the process.
Reed had made few public comments about church negotiations in recent weeks after revealing in June that Friendship Baptist had rejected the city’s $15.5 million offer and asked for as much as $24.5 million. But his frustration that the deal between state officials and Mount Vernon crumbled was clear.
Reed said he’s asked former mayor and ambassador Andrew Young to mediate talks between the church and the GWCCA, should they resume.
“When things got hard, I didn’t quit,” Reed said of the negotiations. “And I have taken as many scars and hits and bruises as anybody in this stadium process. For us to impose an artificial deadline when a significant part of this transaction has been closed — the hardest part — doesn’t make sense.”
SOUTH SITE RE-EMERGES
The advantages and disadvantages of the two sites — one north of the Georgia Dome, one south — available to the Atlanta Falcons for the team’s $1 billion stadium.
NORTH SITE (Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard at Northside Drive)
What’s there now: Acres of parking and a marshaling yard that allows the Georgia World Congress Center to manage the big equipment needed to support large conventions
Advantages of building there:
- Larger site
- Already state-owned
- More flexibility in positioning the stadium
Disadvantages of building there:
- One-half mile walk from MARTA, which could discourage public transit to the stadium
- Contaminated soil that could require costly cleanup, and power lines that would have to be relocated
- Strong opposition from neighborhood groups that say site is too close to residents
SOUTH SITE (Martin Luther King Jr. and Northside drives)
What’s there now: Mount Vernon Baptist Church
Advantages of building there:
- Excellent MARTA access
- Better connectivity to Georgia World Congress Center
- Proximity to proposed downtown multimodal terminal
Disadvantages of building there:
- Requires purchasing and razing Friendship Baptist and Mount Vernon Baptist churches. Friendship agreed to a deal, but Mt. Vernon and the state were $14 million apart, according to documents obtained by the AJC.
- Requires large infrastructure improvements, including reconfiguring Martin Luther King Jr. Drive
- Proximity to Georgia Dome would complicate construction
About the churches
Two churches must be acquired in order to build a new $1 billion stadium for the Atlanta Falcons on the site the city prefers. Some facts about the churches.
Mount Vernon Baptist Church
Pastor: Rev. Rodney K. Turner
Why you’ve heard of this church: It’s in a pivotal spot. The Mount Vernon property, located at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Haynes Street, is where a new $1 billion stadium would be built if an agreement can be reached to buy the church.
About Friendship Baptist Church
Pastor: Rev. Dr. Emmanuel McCall
Why you’ve heard of this church: Friendship Baptist was established during the Civil War when slaves held services in a train boxcar. Both Spelman and Morehouse colleges called the church home during their infancy.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will examine what has to happen in order for the city, the state and the Atlanta Falcons to settle on a stadium site.