To the rescue — City of Atlanta carries the ball for new Falcons stadium

By Maria Saporta

Part One: The politics of the new Atlanta Falcons stadium deal

Once again, the City of Atlanta is leading the way.

The tentative agreement reached between the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Falcons holds great significance — far beyond the building of a new home for one of the state’s top professional sports teams.

The agreement is yet one more example that without Atlanta’s leadership, Georgia would have been stuck in reverse.

There are too many examples to name.

But here are a few. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, arguably the most important economic engine for the whole state, was and is a creature of the City of Atlanta.

Virtually every company that locates in Gwinnett or Cobb or North Fulton or any other county in the metro Atlanta region mentions the airport as a major reason. Many communities south of the airport, Peachtree City in particular, would not exist if it were not for the airport.

But none of those governments contribute to the City of Atlanta and the airport in a tangible way.

For decades, the three-party alliance between the City of Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County moved the entire region forward.

Think MARTA. Those three jurisdictions passed the MARTA Act in 1971 building a rapid transit system that has served as a skeleton to what should be a regional system (had other counties and the state joined in).

But even without that support, MARTA has been instrumental in the whole region and the state entering the international stage.

Without MARTA, Atlanta never would have won the 1988 Democratic National Convention, the 1994 and the 2000 Super Bowls, and most importantly the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. And without MARTA, Georgia never would have become one of the country’s leading convention centers.

Again, the whole region and the whole state has profited from MARTA.  But only three local governments have been paying for its annual operating costs. In fact, rather than provide financial support, that state keeps trying to impose onerous conditions on MARTA making it even more difficult for it to fulfill its mission.

And it is a similar story with Grady Hospital — which serves patients from all over the state but often leaves it up to Fulton and DeKalb to pick up the tab.

Now we have the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, a building that will be owned by the state from day one.

The public financing for the deal is coming entirely from the City of Atlanta’s hotel-motel tax.

When the Georgia Dome was being built, the State of Georgia issued $200 million in revenue bonds, that were backed by hotel-motel taxes collected in the City of Atlanta and unincorporated Fulton County.

But this time around, Gov. Nathan Deal and the State of Georgia did not want to take a political risk to get legislative approval to issue either $300 million or $200 million in revenue bonds (still backed by the city’s hotel-motel taxes) for the $1 billion project. The Atlanta Falcons have agreed to cover the balance of the project’s costs.

So it was left to the City of Atlanta to take over.

Given the law of unintended consequences, Gov. Deal did the city a favor.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Read and his team were able to negotiate a much more favorable deal for the city and the surrounding community than they ever would have been able to had it been a state-driven agreement.

The tentative deal announced on March 7 calls for $50 million of the actual construction agreement to go towards infrastructure improvements related to the stadium project. It also calls for 31 percent minority and women participation in the construction.

And that’s not all. The agreement includes a commitment of $15 million from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and a matching commitment from Invest Atlanta in Westside Tax Allocation District funds (for a total of $30) to go towards community rejuvenation.

Efforts also will be made to get other partners to join in to make the neighborhoods of Castleberry, Vine City and English Avenue more vibrant and livable areas of the city.

Much credit for this enlightened agreement, which still must be approved by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Atlanta City Council, must go to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and his entire organizations.

The dynamics of Thursday’s press conference were fascinating.

Gov. Deal was invited to come to City Hall, but I don’t think any one expected him to come. Up until now, no Republican governor has ever made it across the street to Atlanta’s City Hall for any reason.

(Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin told me that she and former Gov. Roy Barnes used to visit each other when they were both in office).

Now here’s another intriguing piece of info that has not yet surfaced. The announced agreement leaves out Fulton County.

Because of all the new cities that have been created in Fulton County, there are so few hotels and motels left in the unincorporated areas that the deal makers decided it just was not worth the effort to get it through the Fulton County Commission.

Gregory Pierce, chief financial officer for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the annual share of hotel-motel taxes going to the new stadium project from unincorporated Fulton County would only be a little more than $50,000 (compared to a total of about $19.5 million).

So think about it. When it comes to this deal, the state legislature has made itself irrelevant. So has Fulton County because of all the new city governments. And given the disarray in DeKalb County, with its own fair share of new city governments, its political influence has been diluted.

All of a sudden, the City of Atlanta — which still represents only 10 percent of the region’s population — has re-emerged as the government that is leading metro Atlanta, if not the whole state.

Overlay these truths with all the Atlanta leaders who have provided the vision and the moral high ground over the decades — lifting Georgia and the South to a place of tolerance, wisdom and relative prosperity and peace.

Just where would Georgia have been without Henry Grady, William B. Hartsfield, Ralph McGill, Ivan Allen Jr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ted Turner, Coretta Scott King, Anne Cox Chambers, Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young, Shirley Franklin, Jimmy Carter, Sam Nunn, Carl Sanders, Bill Foege and so many others?

So today I applaud the City of Atlanta for stepping in and taking the lead.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how much stronger Georgia would be if Atlanta truly had a meaningful and constructive partnership with the rest of the region and the state.

Next week: Part Two: The interface between a new football stadium and the surrounding communities.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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