Community leaders want new stadium to improve their neighborhoods

By Maria Saporta

After the Atlanta City Council’s speedy 11-4 vote on Monday in support of the new Falcons stadium, the impacted neighborhoods had their turn on Wednesday evening.

The Northwest Community Alliance had a long-scheduled quarterly meeting to hear from Penny McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation about its plans to work with the communities located around the stadium.

But the two-and-a-half hour meeting ended up being more about McPhee listening to the concerns, questions and ideas that community leaders had. And that had been McPhee’s intention all along.

“We knew from the beginning that we wanted to keep the stadium in downtown Atlanta,” McPhee said. “We know that the history of stadiums doesn’t automatically do good things for the communities around them. We have to be intentional. My role is to listen to the community.”

McPhee said the foundation will be working with other partners in the community, including Invest Atlanta and other possibly other investors and donors.

“I hope we can write a new narrative about these communities and not continue to hark back to all the things that haven’t been done,” McPhee said. “I want us to look forward.”

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has been working to build a new stadium for more than two years. A plan to build a$1 billion retractable roof stadium just south of the Georgia Dome has been approved by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the City Council. Invest Atlanta, which will issue $200 million in revenue bonds for the project, must still vote to approve the deal.

In addition to committing to include stadium-related infrastructure improvements as part of the construction agreement, Blank has also pledged to contribute $15 million from his family foundation to help improve the surrounding communities. Invest Atlanta also has committed to allocate $15 in its Westside Tax Allocation District funds to the communities of Vine City and English Avenue — two neighborhoods directly west of the Georgia Dome and the proposed new stadium.

McPhee said that it is still too early to know how the philanthropic and community development funds will be invested. But she said that the Blank Foundation has tended to invest in human capital, such as education and workforce development as well as parks and green space; arts and culture; better nutrition to combat childhood obesity and food deserts.

The west side neighborhoods, home of the historically black colleges on the Atlanta University campus, also hold special significance.

“The arts and culture for us is deeply connected in Vine City and English Avenue to historic preservation,” McPhee said. “What needs to be preserved, keep the culture alive. We have an opportunity as a foundation to invest in the oral history (of the community). We need to do that history.”

McPhee said she remembers first coming to the community in 1985 to meet with Ralph David Abernathy, so she appreciates what a vibrant and rich history that exists. “I want us, whatever we do, to cherish that history,” she said.

Given that the City Council vote just occurred, several questions remain about the details of a proposed Community Benefits Agreement that would accompany the stadium deal. Community leaders questioned how that would be set up and who would be part of that process.

Six members of the Atlanta City Council attended the meeting of the Northwest Community Alliance  — Yolanda Adrean, Michael Julian Bond, Felicia Moore, Ivory Young, C.T. Martin, and Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Other elected leaders included state representative Able Mable Thomas and Atlanta Public Schools board member Byron Amos.

In addition to the Vine City and English Avenue communities, representatives from Castleberry and the Marietta Street Artery Association talked about how they also would be impacted by a new stadium — particularly on game and event days.

Howard Beckham, pastor of the New Jerusalem Community Ministry in English Avenue, said that despite several previous efforts, the neighborhoods continue to struggle.

“We want to be a whole community,” Beckham said. “Despite many of the investments that have come in, we are still not a whole community. I would hope you will develop a strategy that will make us balanced and whole.”

Several leaders wondered how the project could be sensitive to the community if it meant having to move two historically black churches that are located in either on the site or in the shadow of where the new stadium would be built (Mount Vernon Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church).

“Arthur Blank has such respect and reverence for the historic quality for these churches. If the churches don’t want to move, if we can’t find a solution, he’s not going to force any church to leave,” McPhee said. “The Atlanta Falcons team is not going to force any church to leave.”

Instead, the stadium would be build on an alternate site about a half-mile north at the corner of Northside Drive and Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard. The city and GWCC currently are in negotiations to try to acquire both churches.

Other questions and ideas related to storm water run-off, to the stadium’s infrastructure plan, to gentrification, to sustained economic development, to creating community-owned incubators as well as getting the foundation to establish a branch office in the neighborhood that could work community organizations to help them apply for philanthropic grants and offer them other technical assistance.

During the meeting, McPhee told the crowd of about 100 community leaders that Monday’s vote signaled just the beginning of the efforts to engage more formally between the communities, the Atlanta Falcons, the city, the GWCCA and the foundation.

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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