By Maria Saporta and Amy Wenk
The congregation of Friendship Baptist Church voted “overwhelmingly” Sunday afternoon to sell its building to make way for the new $1 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium.
Its vote was the last major roadblock in getting the stadium to be built on the preferred site south of the Georgia Dome. The congregation of Mount Vernon Baptist Church voted Thursday evening to sell its church for $14.5 million in a 116 to 16 vote.
Lloyd Hawk, chairman of the Friendship’s board of trustees, made the announcement saying the decision was made after careful and deliberate discussions.
But Hawk did not disclose the actual vote on the $19.5 million offer that the city in partnership with the Atlanta Falcons had made to buy the church. The two parties had agreed to the price in the first week of August, but it took this long for the congregation to vote.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was delighted with the outcome.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Reed said after participating on a panel at the (co)lab summit at the Woodruff Arts Center Sunday afternoon. “I think it’s the right result and the right long-term decision for the City of Atlanta.”
Friendship, a 151-year-old institution, has been at its current location for 134 years. Its roots go deep in the community, and it was the first home for Morehouse College in Atlanta, and Spelman College was founded in its basement.
Hawk said one of the biggest issues for Friendship was that it needed to be sure it would be staying in the Vine City community.
The process of considering the relocation has “been a very positive opportunity for the church — about who we can be and who we should be,” Hawk said.
Most importantly, Hawk said the church wanted to be able to better serve the Vine City community, and that the church was looking forward to the opportunity of working with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the Falcons organization and the City of Atlanta on efforts to transform the westside neighborhoods.
“I also think the way we got here was as important as the result because we were able to treat these two important institutions with the respect they deserved,” Reed said in a one-on-one interview at the Atlanta Symphony Hall’s back stage. “I draw extra satisfaction from the fact that both votes were overwhelming.”
Asked if the church would consider moving the historic building where it has been for 134 years, Hawk said “physically that would be impossible.” But he added that key elements of the building would be incorporated into the new structure.
Hawk also said that the church is considering several possible locations in the Vine City community, and it will likely settle on a permanent site in the next 60 to 90 days.
“It will be our third move in 151 years,” Hawk said, adding that the church’s first home was a boxcar.
About 50 members of the congregation joined Hawk in the sanctuary after the vote, and Hawk said that more than 200 members had participated in the vote.
“It’s really a decision that was emotional,” he said. “It’s a spiritual decision. It’s a mixture of emotions — sadness and excitement.”
Reed said the city’s commitment to the churches and the community would be ongoing.
“We are going to put the full resources of the City of Atlanta in support of their move,” the mayor said, adding that among the agencies that could be involved included the Atlanta Housing Authority and the city’s land bank authority. “We are going to make sure they are going to have as many options as possible.”
The neighborhoods in the area have been in decline. Reed said that the census tract’s population over the past 20 years has decreased from about 9,000 to 3,500.
“Our ability to implement real change is significant,” the mayor said. “We have a greater chance to see lasting change with expanded entrepreneurial capabilities.”
The Atlanta Falcons had said they needed to decide on the final site by Oct. 1 in order to open by 2017. If the south site had not been a viable option, the Falcons had been prepared to build the stadium a half-mile north at the corner of Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard and Northside Dr.
But the south site was the clear preference of all the parties, including Reed, the Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority. The south site is between two MARTA stations and it adjacent to the convention center. Also the stadium on the south site could be closer linked to downtown and to the Vine City community.
“We’re not commenting until we make the site official, which we do need to do by October 1,” said Kim Shreckengost, a representative of both the Atlanta Falcons and Blank’s business and philanthropic interests.
Jennifer LeMaster, a spokeswoman for the GWCC Authority, also had no comment about Sunday’s vote.
Hawk was asked if church was influenced by the decision of the stadium being built on the south site or the north site.
“We all know that a stadium does not transform a community,” said Hawk, adding that what matters is how the partners would work together. “We took everything into consideration and what would be in the best interest of the church and what would be in the best interest of the community. We are here to serve the community.”
At the end of the press briefing, church member Sadie Dennard simply said: “We are unified.”