Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Council committee grills stadium advocates, stresses benefits to neighborhoods

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2013 at 6:55 PM

Last week, members of an Atlanta City Council committee and the public sat through a three-hour presentation of slides, numbers, and figures about a new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Today, they got a chance to grill advocates.

Among the chief concerns voiced by members of Council's Finance and Executive Committee, some which were echoed last week by members of the public, was ensuring that residents of nearby communities get jobs building and working at the new facility. And that the estimated $1 billion stadium will benefit, not burden, surrounding neighborhoods.

"Atlanta's great at building things, but not great at building people," said Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents a wide swath of downtown that includes part of Castleberry Hill, which could abut the new facility. Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, who also serves part of the neighborhood, said residents fear traffic and tailgating that would accompany a Falcons stadium.

Councilman Ivory Lee Young called for an assurance that 35 percent of the jobs go to minority businesses. Young, who represents the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods located next to the Georgia Dome, called the state's lackluster record on ensuring minority involvement in public projects "pitiful." He predicted that "many of those contractors won't have a chance of getting" contracts to work on the new stadium.

Mayor Kasim Reed, state officials, and the Falcons are currently negotiating the terms of a new home with a retractable roof for the football team. The team is seeking approximately $200 million in revenues from a hotel/motel tax collected in Atlanta. That figure could rise and doesn't take into account the cost of land and tax exemptions the Falcons might receive for building the stadium. The Atlanta City Council would have to sign off on the deal.

Falcons President Rich McKay told the committee that the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, the philanthropic group headed by the Falcons owner and Home Depot co-founder, would work with the community to fund programs and projects that would benefit nearby communities. Foundation President Penny McPhee told CL late last year that the organization was interested in investing in "human capital" programs in the neighborhoods, as they have done in the past.

In addition, council members asked whether stadium advocates actually "needed" or simply "wanted" a new complex. Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean questioned whether the hotel tax could be better spent repairing Atlanta's aging roads, bridges, and sewers rather than building a new stadium. She also inquired about the necessity of a new facility given that the Dome is ranked "in the top five" stadiums. Georgia World Congress Center Executive Director Frank Poe said today that the current condition of the dome was "fully operational" and noted that the facility host the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four.

McKay said the new stadium was "an opportunity" to solve the problem created by the Falcon's expiring lease with the Dome. Simply renovating the Dome, which has been suggested by critics of the stadium proposal as an alternative to building a new complex, would be a "short-term solution," one which he said has tripped up other NFL teams.

"We're trying to create a long-term solution," he said.

Some council members, particularly allies of the mayor, pointed out possible benefits of the new stadium. Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms asked advocates and city officials in attendance about the potential economic boost that new events, such as FIFA soccer games, could bring to the city. She also questioned what impact renovations to the Dome would have on the city's hotel/motel tax. Stadium advocates expect construction on the new facility to force the Falcons to move for two years.

Councilman H. Lamar Willis argued that "it was important for the public to know" that building a new stadium might actually create a "net savings to the citizens." The estimated costs of renovating the Dome, rather than building a new stadium, have ranged from as low as $50 million to, as Willis put it, as high as $850 million.

Still undecided is who will pay for the new roads and infrastructure around the site, which could be located either south of the existing Georgia Dome or along Northside Drive near Ivan Allen Boulevard. Not to mention how much those fixes will cost.

"The detailed cost for infrastructure has not been made because a site has not been finalized," said Duriya Farooqui, Atlanta's chief operating officer. She gave a timetable of "three weeks" to answer the unresolved questions regarding the costs.

Next week the committee will meet to solicit public input about the stadium deal.

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