Two churches are key to final Atlanta Falcons stadium site decision

By Maria Saporta and Amy Wenk
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, May 10, 2013

Now that the new Atlanta Falcons stadium has been given a green light from the various governmental entities and now that an architect has been selected, the next step is finalizing the site.

Active discussions are underway to get that issue settled as soon as possible, so work can start on the $1 billion retractable-roof stadium.

According to official agreements, there’s an Aug. 1 deadline to determine if the preferred stadium location known as the “South site,” which is the land that sits between Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the Georgia Dome, is feasible for the project.

But to select that site, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA) and the city of Atlanta have to reach an agreement to buy two historic black churches — Mount Vernon Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church.

The juxtaposition of a football stadium versus two black churches has become national news.

But the issues are more nuanced.

First of all, both Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have said that they will not force the churches to leave.

If an acceptable agreement can’t be reached with the two churches, the stadium will be built on the fall-back location known as the “North site.” That site is located about a half-mile up Northside Drive at the intersection of Ivan Allen Boulevard on GWCCA land that currently includes its truck marshalling yard.

That site has been considered less than ideal because it is farther away from the center of downtown and the heart of the convention center.

The “South site” also sits between two MARTA stations — the Omni/CNN Station and the Vine City Station.

But Mount Vernon Baptist Church would have to be torn down to make room for the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, slated to open for the 2017 football season.

Frank Poe, GWCCA’s executive director, has been meeting with Mount Vernon’s leaders for months. As recently as May 7, Poe met with Mount Vernon’s board to discuss the possibilities.

“Our discussions are ongoing, but no agreement has been reached,” Poe said through his spokeswoman, Jennifer LeMaster.

When asked at church service on Sunday, May 5, the Rev. Rodney K. Turner, Mount Vernon’s pastor, said the process was moving forward and that the church’s members were consulting with a higher power.

“We are praying, and pray for us,” Turner said.

During the worship service the congregation recited, as part of its church covenant, what might have been a telling prayer:

“We moreover engage that when we remove from this place, we will as soon as possible unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s word.”

According to community leaders, Mount Vernon is thought to be weighing various options to either move the church or to merge its congregation with another.

Across the street, Friendship Baptist Church also is considering whether it should be willing to move. Although the stadium would not be located on Friendship’s property, a redesigned Martin Luther King Jr. Drive would go through its property. Instead of going straight, the street would have a curve to give additional land for the stadium and position it to have dramatic downtown views.

Lloyd Hawk, chairman of the board of trustees for Friendship Baptist Church, said his congregation has not yet received an offer from the city and the mayor. Once it does, it will vote to either accept it or not.

“At least two-thirds of the congregation has said: ‘Let’s see what kind of offer there is and see what’s in the best interest of the church’ ” Hawk said. “We all see that there’s a strong possibility that this could be beneficial for the church and the community.”

Hawk said there is one point that is non-negotiable. Friendship, a 150-year-old church that helped birth both Morehouse College and Spelman College, must remain in the Vine City community.

“This is a decision that’s going to have to hold us for another 150 years,” Hawk said.

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