By Maria Saporta and Amy Wenk
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, August 24, 2012
As the Atlanta Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority get closer to sealing a business deal for a new stadium, they also are getting closer to deciding where the new stadium will be located.
The GWCCA has commissioned consulting firm Populous to do a thorough analysis of the two possible sites — a northern site near the truck marshalling yard at Northside Drive and Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard and a second site south of the Georgia Dome along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Northside Drive.
Several people close to the project say the southern site appears to be gaining momentum ever since the decision was made to go with a “one-stadium solution” rather than building a new stadium and keeping the Georgia Dome.
Both sites have pros and cons.
The north site has more property, which would give football fans more opportunity for tailgating before games. It also sits up higher on a hill, which could provide better vistas to show off the $1 billion stadium in relation to the skyline.
But the north site also is farther away from the main GWCC campus and the heart of downtown. It also has no direct access to MARTA’s rail network.
By comparison, the south site is between two MARTA stations and adjacent to the GWCC campus.
The site, however, would not provide as much land for surface parking and tailgating, and it is not yet known how best to design the stadium so it can spotlight the city’s skyline.
Several key Atlanta leaders, however, believe that the advantages of the south site outweigh the advantages of the north site.
“I think the ideal location would be south,” said Herman Russell, founder and chairman of builder H.J. Russell & Co., which has its offices nearby and has developed several projects in the area. “I just think it’s a perfect area to locate the new stadium. It would make economic sense to put it there.”
In a lengthy interview, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed stopped short of disclosing his preference for a site. But he did share his thoughts on the values he thinks will be most important in picking the best location.
“My real push will be connectivity, to make sure this facility is really connected to the heart of the city,” Reed said. “Once all of the data is back, I would be inclined to go with the site that would have the greatest amount of connectivity and which site would be most sustainable. Sustainability is going to be very important to me.”
After meeting with team owner Arthur Blank and the Falcons, Reed said he is convinced the new stadium will be “world-class” and a significant asset for the city.
“I’ve spoken with the leadership of the Falcons organization including Mr. Blank, and I know he wants the stadium to be representative of the best of Atlanta,” Reed said.
Locating the new stadium on the south site does have other challenges — namely the need to acquire some property including the Mount Vernon Baptist Church at 441 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
At the service Sunday, Aug. 19, the congregation was made aware of potential talks about the sale of the church. The church’s pastor, Rev. Rodney K. Turner, briefly discussed the negotiations under way between the Falcons and the GWCCA.
“We know they are going to do something,” Turner said, saying any decision to sell the church would be made by “the Church” as a whole.
Two leaders of the church did attend the last GWCCA board meeting, an indicator of the growing interest in that location for a new stadium.
Both the Falcons and GWCCA refrained from commenting on the site negotiations.
“We’re partnering with the GWCCA in evaluating both locations, each of which has its unique considerations and complexities,” said Kim Shreckengost, executive vice president and chief of staff for AMB Group, the parent company of the Atlanta Falcons. “We’re making progress, but haven’t yet made a decision on the site. Out of respect for the negotiating process, we’re not commenting beyond that.”
Frank Poe, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, agreed. In a statement, he said GWCCA is “continuing our analysis of potential sites for a new stadium project.” He said once a final decision was reached on the location, that information would be made public.
Meanwhile, several Atlanta leaders discussed the merits of locating the new stadium south of the Georgia Dome.
Egbert Perry, chairman and CEO of the Integral Group development firm and also chairman of Central Atlanta Progress, admitted his bias for the south site.
Insisting that he was not speaking on behalf of the downtown business organization, Perry said that the south site “allows us to leverage the existing infrastructure and activity that is planned for that area.”
Perry is also one of the team members picked to develop the new MultiModal Passenger Terminal (MMPT) development near the Georgia Dome in “the gulch.” That project would sit just east of a new stadium on the south site.
“If either site is viable, then I think the south site is better because I know there’s a lot of development being planned in that area,” Perry said. “If you go up to the north, it feels more separated and isolated.”
Acknowledging he is no expert on football stadium design, Perry did say dealing with surrounding communities was key.
“Anything that is done in planning the stadium and its location should take into account the interests of the adjacent neighborhoods and community organizations,” Perry said. “I’ve had several conversations in the neighborhood with community leaders and activists who think their preference is for the south site.”
After his board’s Aug. 22 meeting, William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said: “It’s not really our job to figure out what site is best. Our job it to promote it.”
But he did say that “the south site definitely has more access to transportation.”
Mark Vaughan, ACVB’s executive vice president and chief sales officer, said the south site would be an easier sell because of its proximity to GWCCA’s facilities.
“No question. Anytime you can create a campus-like setting it helps you with positioning your product,” Vaughan said. We have many groups that use the Congress Center and the Dome. Maintaining that would be a good selling advantage.”
The site negotiations are on a parallel track as the business deal negotiations, and it is expected that both will be agreed to in the next several months.
Blank has expressed his interest to start playing in the new stadium in time for the 2017 season. And to stick with that timeline, agreements on both would need to be made by the end of the year.
The state has already said that it will extend the current hotel-motel taxes that are now paying the debt service on the Georgia Dome to help pay for a new stadium. It has been estimated that those taxes would be worth at least $300 million over the next 30 years.
The Falcons would then have to cover the remaining cost of the stadium, which would have a retractable roof, estimated to total about $1 billion.
Mayor Reed said the stadium will be a big part of Atlanta’s future and an opportunity to present “our best selves” to the world.
“We in the city of Atlanta are going to be more and more focused on beauty and aesthetics. Every city that is world class — a place you want to visit or live in — cares about aesthetics. I think that is a priority for the Falcons,” Reed said. “When people see the facility that is being planned, it’s going to be breath-taking.”