By Maria Saporta
After months of on-again, off-again talks, the City of Atlanta and Friendship Baptist Church have resumed negotiations on the possible sale of the 151-year-old church to make way for the new Atlanta Falcons football stadium.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed met for more than an hour Tuesday afternoon with Lloyd Hawk, chairman of the board of trustees of Friendship Baptist Church, to reopen the lines of communications between the two.
“We all did meet,” Hawk confirmed. “It was a very positive meeting, and we will be scheduling future meetings, probably as early as next week.”
Hawk said that had it not been for the July 4 holiday, a follow-up meeting might have even been scheduled for this week.
Sonji Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Reed, said she couldn’t comment on the meeting.
Acquiring Friendship Baptist Church and its property has been considered a key step in moving forward with the new stadium project.
The Atlanta Falcons and their partners have said that the preferred site for the new stadium is just south of the Georgia Dome partly because it is convenient to the Georgia World Congress Center complex and it sits between two MARTA stations.
But in order for a new stadium to fit on that site, two historically African-American churches would have to be acquired and moved. To make the stadium site large enough, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive would have to be rerouted so it would go through the Friendship property. And the other church, Mount Vernon Baptist Church, actually is located on the footprint of the proposed stadium.
Reed has been in charge of the negotiations with Friendship while the Georgia World Congress Center has been negotiating with Mount Vernon.
On June 20th, Reed gave an interview to a television station giving financial details of the negotiations with Friendship, saying the church was asking for $24.54 million while the city had increased its offer to $15.5 million.
At the time, Hawk said the mayor’s comments had caught him by surprise because he thought the city and the church were still in a negotiating mode, which he said is hard to do in the press. Hawk then asked the mayor if he would be willing to sit down with representatives of the Falcons, GWCC and a negotiator to work out a deal. The mayor said he was only interested in one-on-one negotiations.
Then a few days later, the city released a map that showed a drastic rerouting of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive so that it would merge with Mitchell Street so the new stadium could be squeezed on the site. Under that approach, the city said that it would not be necessary to acquire Friendship Baptist Church.
But even the mayor acknowledged that it would not be ideal to have the church be overshadowed by a new Falcons stadium just next door. Hawk also let it be known that the church remained open to talks with the city.
The church has been consistent with its requests. It would like to relocate to another site in the community so it can participate in the neighborhood’s revitalization, and it would like to have enough money to rebuild the institution.
The Atlanta Falcons have said they need to know by Aug. 1 whether the two churches will sell so they can keep the project on schedule. The plans call for opening the $1 billion retractable roof stadium in time for the 2017 football season.