By Maria Saporta
Friday, February 18, 2011
Building a new open-air stadium for the Atlanta Falcons on Georgia World Congress Center land is a feasible solution, according to a consultant’s report to be released Feb. 22.
The study by Kansas City, Mo.-based Populous will focus on the GWCC’s truck marshalling yard along Northside Drive and Simpson Street, just north of the convention center, according to several people familiar with the report.
GWCC officials said they could not discuss details of the report until it is presented to its board at its Feb. 22 meeting. “It is not appropriate for me to comment until the report has been presented to the board,” said Tim Lowe, CEO of Lowe Engineers and chair of the GWCC board.
The 21-acre truck marshalling yard is considered to be integral to the daily operations of the convention center. But apparently it is the only site owned by the GWCC that is large enough to accommodate an open-air stadium.
Populous and GWCC reportedly have determined that at least part of the site could continue serving as a truck marshalling yard, especially on non-game days. And on the eight to 10 Sunday home games for the Falcons, that land would be used for surface parking and tailgating.
Populous has been working with the GWCC on a master plan for the center. An earlier report focused on the feasibility of revamping the existing Georgia Dome so it could continue as the Falcons’ home.
But the Falcons have insisted they need a new stadium, one that is open air and designed to be more lucrative for the team. As currently envisioned, the new stadium would have about 65,000 seats but would have more suites and club seats that could be leased for a premium price.
Because several conventions and sporting events, such as Southeastern Conference championships and the Chick-fil-A Bowl have said they would like to continue using the Georgia Dome, GWCC now is seriously considering the “two stadium solution.”
GWCC officials meet with representatives of the Falcons at least once a month, and people close to the situation say a strong spirit of cooperation and partnership exists between the two parties today.
The situation likely will boil down to the financial feasibility of developing a two-stadium deal.
A new open-air stadium is expected to cost at least $750 million, and that does not include money needed to maintain the operations of the Georgia Dome.
When built in the early 1990s, the Georgia Dome cost about $220 million. A 2.75-cent hotel/motel tax in the city of Atlanta was passed to repay the 30-year bonds that were used to build the facility. The Falcons have pledged to continue playing in the Georgia Dome until the bonds are paid off, which is expected to happen three to four years before 2020.
Meanwhile, the state legislature passed a bill during the last session extending the hotel/motel tax through 2050 to help finance the renovation or the Georgia Dome and/or build a new stadium, as long as it is located on land owned by the GWCC.
William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said his organization supported the legislation to extend the tax until 2050.
“We wanted to ensure as much as possible that the Falcons would remain downtown,” Pate said. “We wanted that certainty.”
Depending on projections, the hotel/motel tax is expected to generate enough money to cover about $300 million of the cost of a new stadium.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank has said the team would make a substantial investment in the new facility.
But in return, the Falcons hope to strike a more lucrative arrangement with a new stadium than its current agreement with the GWCC. The team is among the lowest of National Football League teams in the amount of revenue it generates for the league.
Kim Shreckengost, an executive vice president and chief of staff for Arthur Blank’s AMB Group, declined to comment on the latest developments until after the GWCC report has been released.
As currently envisioned, GWCC would contribute the land for a new stadium. The state likely would issue low-interest bonds for the new facility, and those bonds would be repaid with the hotel/motel taxes and revenues from the Falcons games.
GWCC officials recently met with Gov. Nathan Deal to give him an update of the stadium discussions as well as outline how the state could be involved.
Ideally, the Falcons and GWCC would like to see construction on the new stadium begin in 2014 so it could open in time for the 2017 football season.
The team also would like to expand the number of parking spaces for the stadium and provide more tailgating opportunities, again for a premium price.
In order to accommodate thousands of new parking spaces, the GWCC might possibly try to buy the former Herndon Homes housing project, currently owned by the Atlanta Housing Authority.
That site is directly north of the truck marshalling yard along Northside Drive.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of the new stadium being built on the GWCC’s truck marshalling yard.
Dan Graveline, who retired as GWCC’s executive director at the end of 2009, developed the truck marshalling yard in such a way to provide direct access to the convention center and minimize the traffic problems of having hundreds of trucks clog city streets.
“The marshalling yard is such a critical function, and it’s so ideally located,” Graveline said. “This is just my opinion, but I firmly believe the marshalling yard is too critical to the exhibition function to give it up without carefully considering the alternatives.”
According to people close to the situation, GWCC’s new executive director, Frank Poe, is described as “moving in a very analytical way,” and as someone who is “very low key.”
Other civic leaders have questioned whether the truck marshalling yard is the best site for a new stadium, especially because it is not near MARTA’s rail line and not as centrally located as the Georgia Dome.