By Maria Saporta
What a way to say good-bye to the Georgia Dome.
The Atlanta Falcons decisively beat the Green Bay Packers – winning the NFC and a trip to Houston to play in the Super Bowl.
For Arthur Blank, who has owned the Falcons for 15 years, it was a moment to savor. It was the realization of one of his greatest dreams – to have the Falcons play in the Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5.
“I’m very excited for our family – not only my immediate family – but my family of Atlanta,” Blank said at the press briefing after the game. “I’m very happy. This is a special moment for me.”
The Atlanta Falcons led the entire game – leading 24-0 at half-time – and finally beating the Packers by 44 to 21.
It is the second time the Falcons will play in the Super Bowl. The last time was in 1999 in Miami – losing that game to the Denver Broncos. A couple of years later Blank ended up buying the team from the family of the late Rankin Smith.
In addition to building the team, Blank has been focused on building a new football-soccer stadium to replace the Georgia Dome, which is only 25 years old. The new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is scheduled to open later this year.
“That’s important to me symbolically,” Blank said of playing this game in the Georgia Dome.
But he sounded even prouder of the team.
“You name a Falcons player that you think has a lot of talent, and he is a young player,” Blank said.
But it is not just a Super Bowl win that Blank wants.
“My goal was not only to win a championship, get to the Super Bowl, win a Super Bowl, but to put us in a position as an organization to be a sustainably important team for a long time,” he said. “I think we’re well positioned now to do that.”
Then Blank reminded everyone that Falcons would be playing in a new home next season.
The excitement of winning the game was combined with a bittersweet farewell to the Georgia Dome.
“It is so significant to me,” said Jerome Russell, whose family construction company helped build both the Georgia Dome and the new Mercedes Benz Stadium. “It’s like celebrating the past while looking forward to the future.”
Looking over toward the Westside, Russell sounded optimistic the neighborhood was also going to be rising up along with the Falcons.
“We are really blessed to be here. I see the urbanization of Atlanta and these new urban villages popping up all over Atlanta,” Russell said, adding there will be about 300 full-time jobs in the new stadium and more than a hundred at the headquarters of the Metro Atlanta YMCA. “You start creating vibrancy. It’s going to help everything around here.”
Former Atlanta Falcons player Steve Bartkowski was looking forward to see the Falcons play in the new stadium.
“I don’t know how many wonders of the world there are, but the new stadium will be one of them,” Bartkowski said.
Asked if he would miss the Georgia Dome, he became reflective. “You know you are getting old when the franchise you played with and watched has been in three different stadiums. I never played here in the Dome. I retired six years before it opened. I did hate to see the old Atlanta-Fulton County stadium get torn down.”
Frank Poe, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, said they actually had said their good-byes to the Georgia Dome two weeks ago – because they had no way of knowing the Falcons would be coming back to play a final game.
“You couldn’t have scripted a better outcome,” Poe said. “It made it even more special to make this one the last game in this house.”
With the Georgia Dome going away, the state will no longer have its name on the Falcons stadium. The state has been managing the Dome since it opened in 1992. But when the Mercedes Benz Stadium opens later this year, it will be managed by the Falcons. The state, however, will own the building.
“We have known the time for the Georgia Dome was coming to a close,” said Poe, who added the facility will hold another five events before it closes for good.
“It becomes a good way to pass off things,” Poe said. “Our mantra this whole year is to go out on top – to go out the very best way we could.”
Among the dignitaries hosted by Blank in his suite Sunday night included former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter as well as Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife, Sandra Deal.
When it was obvious the Falcons were going to win, Blank said he wanted to be surrounded by both his immediate family and the family of Atlanta.
“I wanted to share that joy with all my family,” Blank said. “For me it’s about creating happiness for others.”