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Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed flexes political muscle on stadium deal

By Maria Saporta

When Invest Atlanta voted 8-to-1 Thursday morning in favor of a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed almost broke out into an end-zone victory dance.

Yet the dynamics behind the two-and-a-half year effort to get all the necessary governmental approvals for a new stadium involved a series of twist and turns, handshakes and broken promises, unusual alliances and political intrigue that set off waves in this year’s city elections and next year’s state elections.

So many issues about how the stadium will be designed to fit in with the surrounding neighborhoods and how the communities can benefit from this $1 billion investment will hinge on the ability of the various personalities and entities to work together for the greater good. (More next week.)

First to the twists and turns.

For more than two years, the Atlanta Falcons negotiated with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority on the nitty-gritty elements of a new stadium deal. All options were explored — renovating the Georgia Dome, building a new open air stadium and keeping the Georgia Dome (the two-stadium solution) to the current option of having one stadium with a retractable roof built adjacent to the GWCC campus.

There was a handshake deal between the Falcons, the NFL, the governor and the mayor that the state would take the lead to issue bonds for about a third of the cost. (The City of Atlanta’s hotel-motel taxes already had been allocated to the project).

But state leaders got cold feet when polls showed a lack of support for tax dollars going to build a new football stadium. State leaders were particularly nervous about taking a stand that could hurt their own re-election chances in 2014.

So the City of Atlanta took the lead, eventually agreeing to issue $200 million in revenue bonds that would be backed by the hotel-motel taxes.

Here was the intrigue.

Mayor Reed, who is running for re-election this year, seemed nonplussed by the opposition to the stadium project. He was confident that his popularity was strong enough to withstand a hit, plus he knew he could get the votes on the Atlanta City Council.

And he knew that in the long run it would be far more important to his legacy to be a mayor who kept the Falcons in Atlanta through 2050 than be the mayor who lost the professional football team to the suburbs or to another city.

Now here’s the irony. The members of the Atlanta City Council whom Mayor Reed views as his opposition actually have been his most helpful allies.

Before the details of a deal were made public, City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and Finance Committee President Felicia Moore began holding work sessions to familiarize the Council and the public with the issues around the stadium.

In fact, when asked at the Invest Atlanta meeting about the lack of public input into the stadium decision, Reed mentioned the five City Council work sessions called by Mitchell and Moore. (He also mentioned an Invest Atlanta board meeting, a press conference and a GWCCA board meeting — all sparsely attended by the general public).

I would venture to say that if Mitchell and Moore had not called those work sessions, the stadium deal would not have passed council with an 11-4 vote.

Partly because of Council’s work in providing ideas on how the deal could benefit the City and giving the public a voice for its concerns, the stadium deal ended up being far better than it was originally.

The pivotal moment actually happened during the Council work session of March 14, hours after the official deal had been handed out to councilmembers. Members of the administration were not permitted to make a presentation to Council, which infuriated the mayor.

As a result, the decision was made to call a floor vote on the stadium deal on Monday, March 18 without the deal going through the normal committee channels. It was the mayor’s way of showing who had the most political juice.

Despite Moore’s best efforts to get the deal fully vetted through the Council committee process, she knew she had been outgunned by the mayor.

But if the mayor had been willing to give Moore two weeks for the stadium deal to go through the committee process, he may have won a unanimous vote out of City Council.

It is not the first time the two have found themselves at opposite sides of an issue. Remember pension reform? Mayor Reed’s plan had run into serious opposition from unions. Moore came up with an alternate plan. After much negotiation, there was a compromise between both plans.

Now Mayor Reed often points to pension reform as major victory of his administration — saying pension reform passed with a unanimous vote from Council and was supported by the unions. But that would not have happened without Moore.

In many ways, that’s how government is supposed to work — a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.

Mayor Reed, who at his core is a political street fighter, has matured tremendously in his first three years in office by highlighting areas of consensus with state Republican leaders including Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston.

As the saying goes: “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Reed seems to know that at the state level, but he seems to forget that at the city level.

Still, Reed’s political leadership skills certainly were on display during the passage of the stadium deal through its twists and turns.

As he was doing his end zone victory dance, Reed said he knew the real test would depend on him being re-elected so that over the next five years he’ll be able to fulfill the opportunities the stadium project holds for Atlanta and the adjacent communities.

“We have a five-year runway of accountability,” Reed said. “I’m hopeful that I’m fortunate to be re-elected to serve.”

And then Reed added that most members of the Atlanta City Council also likely will be re-elected to serve another term giving them all that five-year runway to be accountable to the community.

For Reed, it also will be an opportunity to turn his perceived enemies into allies.

Next week: How to define success in five years.

Maria Saporta

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.



  1. Kasim Reed April 7, 2013 10:24 pm

    I just read this article and you could not be more wrong. The notion that I view the Atlanta City Council as my “enemies” is completely inaccurate, and if you had taken the time to ask me if that was the case you would have known that. In fact, the opposite is true, and I personally acknowledge the importance of council’s input on a consistent basis. Notably, despite the fact that you are frequently in the audience when this occurs, you omitted that information. It is entirely unfair and inaccurate to turn your opionion of my relationship with one ore two council members into a description which is wholly inconsistent with the manner in which the overwhelming majority of council members and I have worked together to move this city forward for more than three years. Thanks, Kasim ReedReport

    1. Maria Saporta April 7, 2013 10:35 pm

      Actually, Mayor Reed, you are correct. You have a great relationship with a majority of Council. I thought that was implied throughout the column when I said you had the votes all along.

      My comments were more directed to the couple of council members who I believe you see as being adversaries.

      After having sat through countless meetings that they have led, it is my opinion (and yes it is my opinion) that they actually have been more helpful in getting your agenda through than you might realize.

      Respectfully, MariaReport

  2. George Chidi April 8, 2013 11:48 am

    Interesting comments.

    We’ll see how bulletproof your council alliances are when the actual tab for the stadium emerges in bits and pieces over the next year or two, and the numbers creep up toward the $400 to 500 million or so Maria, I and others expect to see.

    If you don’t have $45 million in your pocket to cover Grady’s shortfall next year — some deal we haven’t heard about yet — this albatross will ornament your collar.Report

    1. Baker April 8, 2013 1:27 pm

      Amen George! Anyone who was actually paying attention (a woefully low number unfortunately, low among the City Council also I’m afraid) know that Mayor Reed, the Falcons, and the GWCCA were intentionally concealing what the true amount of city money going to this project was.

      $200 MILL? HA! And then Rich McKay is asked about it after all the votes are counted (good timing media folks) and he says “what $200 mill? We’ve always stated we’re going to get a certain % of the HMT” My foot you always stated. This is so disgusting.Report

  3. billyhoward April 8, 2013 3:07 pm

    The new stadium will benefit those with money to pay for the overpriced tickets; the NFL; the owners; and the ego of the politicians who are supposed to be serving the people of Atlanta but let id defeat reason. Completing the Beltline would offer ALL Atlantans a better, more inviting city, not just the few who want to spend a few weekends a year at a football game. The city would be more livable and show that we have vision, like Chicago with Millinneum Park or New York’s new High Line Park. Anyone who has been on the few finished parts of the Beltline witnessed bikers, walkers, skaters and every kind of Atlantan, rich and poor, enjoying what is an egalitarian asset to the city. A football stadium? Really? Hundred’s of Billions in a city with as much need as Atlanta? It defies reason and borders on being an immoral decision and gross misuse of public money. The Mayor, who I have supported as well as the city council should enjoy their seats, the rest of us will be watching from the sidelines. And if the money couldn’t be used for that, perhaps repairing our crumbling infra structure. As it is, what is rightfully ours is going to line the pockets of the same old people whose pockets are already stuffed and when the city needs to do the real work the rest of us will be asked to give again.Report

    1. hg April 8, 2013 9:20 pm

      you just read my mind!! ugh is there anything we can do to make your point the resounding one! i think the majority of Atlantans feels this way (even if you were to bring this up at a football game with the people sitting behind you)Report

    2. Julie Dalia April 12, 2013 12:42 pm

      Could not agree more with you; well said.Report

  4. Atlanta Taxpayer April 8, 2013 3:34 pm

    I’m surprised you took the time away from counting all that Stadium money kickbacks to address this, Mayor Reed.Report

    1. maria saporta April 8, 2013 3:48 pm

      Atlanta Taxpayer,
      I don’t really think that’s an appropriate comment. One can disagree about whether we should invest in a new stadium without accusing folks of taking kickbacks.

  5. Walker April 8, 2013 3:49 pm

    Fellow Atlantans, why is it that none of you realize that we are not paying for the stadium. It’s hotels, motels, and car rentals inside the city! Not the suburbs. So if you don’t rent rooms or cars inside the city of Atlanta, then you should just keep quiet and focus on your own little enclave.Report

    1. Baker April 8, 2013 3:59 pm

      Walker: How is that you don’t realize that money is not infinite? We could do amazing things with that money, such as what Billy suggested, that could be used by the whole city for free! Or we could use it to fund schools, street repair, perhaps the court-mandated sewer and water fix (that we had to go and beg for another extension on)? Perhaps pay down the still-looming pension problems?

      Instead, we’re subsidizing what is essentially a game owned by billionaires, played by millionaires, that (when ticket prices are increased to pay for the Falcons portion of stadium funding) is increasingly only attended by the near-millionaires and up. Atlanta taxpayers are giving away tax money that we could be using to basically indirectly fund the salary of football players.

      I personally care more about Grady Hospital, Atlanta Public Schools, the Beltline, and numerous other things than I do whether or not Matt Ryan makes an extra $3-5 MILL a year.

      You say that’s what the rule on the HMT says? Well then we should change the freaking rule. Kasim should’ve been lobbying to change it, someone on the city council, anyone. The rule was put in place in 1989. You know how much more money that HMT brings in than in 1989? And it’s only going to continue to go up, giving the Falcons more and more money that the city could be using towards valuable, needed projects.Report

    2. J. Dalia April 12, 2013 12:46 pm

      It is not anyone’s place in a country with free speech to tell someone else to “keep quiet.” Your directive is patronizing and disresepctful.Report

    3. Burroughston Broch April 12, 2013 6:01 pm

      @ Walker
      If the tax doesn’t raise enough money to amortize the bonds, City and Fulton County taxpayers must pay the difference. I assume you live in the City, so this means you.Report

  6. Atlanta Taxpayer April 8, 2013 4:17 pm

    The fact that they magically came up with this money for a stadium we don’t even need while the rest of the metro Atlanta area struggles with funding cuts, such as with our school system and public servants, is flat out insulting. Its sending a message that sports are more important than our children’s education and safety.

    Yes, the money was set aside specifically for things like the new stadium, but that doesn’t change the fact that if they really wanted to save other areas of the city, they would have found a way just like they did.

    Appropriate or not, I’m sure Mayor Reed got kickbacks over this deal. $200 mil is a lot of money, and the city needs to come up with a lot more for infrastructure, maintenance, upgrades, repairs, landscaping, and so on.. especially since construction equipment & materials for the new stadium will be tax free, and most of the jobs its creating will be temp construction jobs, both in state and out of state, and much of that will still be foreign labor. The city could have gotten more out of this. We’re not even collecting revenue off of the food, merchandise, and other things sold at the stadium. Atlanta can only collect taxes on those items.

    Its a lot of money for a stadium that the Falcons will only play 8 games in each season, especially while the other dome isn’t even paid for yet, and won’t be until after the new dome is built. The Superdome was designed in the 1960’s, and is still used for the Superbowl. Atlanta has the 2nd largest indoor dome in the United States, but that’s certainly not good enough for the spoiled Falcons or Arthur Blank. $350 million was spent renovating it just a few years ago.

    Let the people of Atlanta vote on this, and I’m sure it’d never pass. Good luck getting re-elected, Reed.Report

    1. Baker April 8, 2013 4:38 pm

      @Atlanta Taxpayer: The sad thing? and Kasim Reed knows this, is that he’ll cruise to re-election. I’d be stunned if it was even close.Report

  7. Atlanta Taxpayer April 8, 2013 4:20 pm

    I should also note that the current dome did nothing to improve the surrounding area, so I’m really not buying that pitch that this will somehow work where the Georgia Dome failed. The amount of money offered to help develop the surrounding area is a joke. There’s not much that it’ll end up buying.Report

  8. billyhoward April 8, 2013 4:23 pm

    The inference that the money comes from hotel motel tax and thus citizens shouldn’t have a say is specious. AS citizens of Atlanta (me for over 35 years) that tax is something we all should share the benefits of, not just a select few and it definitely shouldn’t be seen as a hundred (or 2 or 3) million dollar slush fund to use for a stadium most residents have already made clear we don’t want or need.Report

  9. Atlanta Taxpayer April 8, 2013 4:42 pm

    Its pathetic that Atlanta can come up with $200 million for a new dome but can’t even clean up the drug dealers, prostitution, and other crime just 2 blocks away from City Hall. Where’s your pride, ATL? Where’s your sense of ownership?Report

  10. RIck Stevens April 8, 2013 9:18 pm

    @Baker we can only hope… Reed has been an excellent Mayor so far.Report

  11. Grayson D. April 9, 2013 8:09 am

    Let’s just say Felicia Moore isn’t scared of “political street fighters.” Or school yard bullies.Report

  12. peggydobbins April 9, 2013 10:48 am

    At least it’s livelyReport

  13. cc April 9, 2013 12:37 pm

    The Mayor has pulled a fast one on the tax payers, designed to help line the pockets of his corporate buddies. And YES, he will get reelected in a landside… why? Because there will be no one of distinction who will run against him, not because he is a good Mayor.Report

  14. Bweaver April 9, 2013 4:11 pm

    I believe the mayor views the taxing/bonding authority of our city as a means to an end under the guise that someone else (visitors) will pay the tax not Atlanta’s citizens. I hope he realizes that this decision to enrich a few individuals with the proceeds of any tax (regardless of who pays it) while possibly legal is an abuse and certainly among the reasons many citizens view this administration as ethically challenged. Frankly, I am disappointed that Mr. Blank and the Falcons would even ask for the money.Report

  15. dissapointed April 9, 2013 5:56 pm

    Sure wish I could just ask for money…I would pay down my student debt…all $29,000 of it after being a model product of public school education…attending Dekalb county public schools, getting a college degree at UGA and graduating with a 3.57 only to come to Atlanta and get offered $9.00 an hour no benefits.Report


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