In Ga., stadium opposition signals public shift

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 19, 2013 at 10:06 pm •  Published: January 19, 2013
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"I think once people know there aren't state tax dollars involved here — that this won't compete with funding for schools or Medicaid or public safety — that we could see a change in public opinion on the issue," Deal said.

That's different from notable cases like Cincinnati, Ohio, where county authorities in 2010 had to cut public services to avoid defaulting on debt payments for two stadiums because the bonds were backed by sales tax revenues that tanked in the Great Recession.

In Minnesota, some officials are already worried that gambling revenues earmarked for new stadium debt won't be sufficient.

Georgia's top legislative leaders, both Deal allies, also have punted to Blank to sell his plan. "I don't think the case has been made," said House Speaker David Ralston of north Georgia. The Senate's top-ranking member, Atlanta Sen. David Shafer, said only, "I'm still considering the proposals."

Then there are outright opponents such as Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat and Deal critic. He said a state that has furloughed teachers and "doesn't seem to have a problem with 650,000 uninsured residents" should have different priorities.

"A playground for a billionaire isn't a priority for me," he said.

A spokeswoman at the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, the state entity that would own the new stadium, declined to make agency executives available for an interview. She cited the sensitivity of negotiations.

Authority leaders have said they don't necessarily need a new stadium. Their fear is that Blank, with his $700 million commitment, could opt to build his own open-air stadium that would become a competitor.

Efforts to contact Falcons executives were not successful.

Judith Grant Long, an urban planning professor at Harvard University and an expert on sports complex financing warned in a recent book that it is difficult to measure the true cost of stadium investments.

There's infrastructure: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a supporter of the stadium project, has suggested that as much as $200 million could be required.

There are operating costs, management duties and revenue sharing. Under the preliminary Georgia plan, Blank would cover most operations, but he'd also reap revenue from seat licenses, premium seats and concessions and could negotiate for corporate naming rights.

That kind of power in Minnesota has led to a public smack down from Gov. Mark Dayton, who blasted the team for even considering passing on its stadium costs to fans in the form of seat licenses.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal recently used naming rights as a carrot to phase out direct subsidies to the New Orleans Saints, the principal tenant of what is now called the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Louisiana taxpayers still own the stadium, but Mercedes is paying Saints owner Tom Benson.

The Falcons deal proposes a $2.5 million annual rent payment from Blank to the state.

Georgia's Congress Center Authority would maintain control over negotiating contracts with existing clients for events for the Southeastern Conference Championship football game, NCAA basketball tournaments and the Chick-fil-A preseason and postseason college football games. But Blank would be a player in making "citywide bids," like those for Super Bowls and college football's new championship game.

Deal's statement and his previous public interview on the Falcons have not delved into those details.

Long, the expert on stadium financing, also noted future maintenance and eventual demolition costs beyond initial tenant agreements: 30 years in the Falcons' case. "These are not static deals," she wrote, but "dynamic, living deals that should be assessed over their full duration."