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Falcons face pressure to ask for less public funds
By Greg Bluestein
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Atlanta Falcons are under political pressure to ask for less taxpayer help for a new $1 billion retractable roof stadium amid public resistance to using tax funds for the project.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s office has asked Falcons owner Arthur Blank to cut his request for public funding from $300 million to $200 million or agree to other changes in the deal, according to three people with direct knowledge of the negotiations. Blank has so far balked at the idea, they said.
The three said the reduction is one of several options on the table to build political support for the stadium, which faces skepticism from lawmakers and the public over the amount of state-issued bonds involved.
Other options could include tax breaks or incentives for the project or an attempt to route the bonds through Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, rather than through the state. The three stressed negotiations are fluid. They requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Blank and his allies have been seeking to seal the deal as the Falcons make a playoff push that has energized fans. Sunday’s NFC championship at the Georgia Dome is the team’s biggest game in nearly a decade, and a win would lead to the Super Bowl.
Even as the team prepared, Falcons president Rich McKay was seen at the governor’s office on Friday.
The Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, a state agency whose members are appointed by the governor, recently agreed to a plan to build the new stadium near the Dome, which would be torn down.
The GWCCA would issue $300 million in construction bonds backed by the city’s hotel-motel tax, which the Legislature has already agreed to extend for that purpose.
But the plan hinges on a legislative vote that would raise the agency’s borrowing limit, currently at $200 million.
Even if Blank agrees to reduce the team’s request, lawmakers would likely still have to vote on the bond deal. But it could be more politically palatable among legislators eager to avoid a long debate over raising a borrowing limit to benefit a private sports franchise.
Deal’s office declined to comment on the matter, and the governor made no mention of the stadium proposal during his annual State of the State address on Thursday. A Falcons executive and officials from the Georgia World Congress Center also declined to comment.
Blank, the GWCCA and supporters say a new state-of-the-art stadium would benefit both the team and the region’s economy by drawing bigger crowds and marquee events such as a Super Bowl or the World Cup. They also note Blank is putting up around $700 million for the project, a substantial investment in a down economy.
But a statewide poll conducted for the AJC last month showed 72 percent of respondents either opposed or strongly opposed using hotel/motel tax collections in Atlanta and unincorporated Fulton County to help finance construction.
The resistance has led both Deal and House Speaker David Ralston to urge the team to pitch their plan to the public rather than directly to lawmakers to build broader support. McKay, the Falcons president, has said the team plans “to take a more direct and aggressive stance with Georgia residents and their legislators in the coming weeks,” though he hasn’t disclosed specifics.
Blank is on the board of directors of Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, whose media holdings include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Without the $300 million public funding portion, project supporters said the deal could unravel and Blank could build a less expensive open-air stadium on his own elsewhere in metro Atlanta. That scenario - whose feasibility some question - would leave the state-run Dome with no NFL tenant and a daunting new suburban competitor.
A draft of the most recent stadium plans obtained by the AJC doesn’t rule out either of the two downtown sites that were under consideration since last spring, but it indicates a tract of land immediately south of the Georgia Dome is the preferred option. It pegs the cost of a stadium at about $950 million, though infrastructure costs could bump it well above $1 billion.
Deal said this week that a Falcons appearance in the Super Bowl, on Feb. 3 in New Orleans, could only help the team’s push for a new stadium.
“I certainly think winning the game will be positive,” he said.