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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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ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank will watch his team host an NFC championship game for the first time Sunday, and if he gets his way, he'll soon be sitting in the owner's box of a $1 billion retractable-roof stadium downtown.

But Blank isn't getting a lot of help from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and other politicians. Deal supports using $300 million in revenue from an existing hotel tax to partner with Blank on a new complex to replace the 21-year-old Georgia Dome, but he says the owner must do the heavy lifting.

Jockeying between major sports franchises and governments over the financing of new stadiums is nothing new, but the chilly reception the Atlanta proposal has gotten from the public and many state lawmakers is surprising some in this business-friendly state. Though the team is red-hot, the Georgia Dome is in good shape and nearly two decades younger than Louisiana's Superdome. And the state is coming off several years of painful budget cuts.

Similar dynamics are playing out in Miami and Birmingham, Ala., as fans and taxpayers appear to be more circumspect about spending public money on stadiums used primarily by privately owned teams.

Statewide polls in Georgia show that less than a third of residents support a new stadium, even if Blank covers most of the construction cost. So the politicians' message to Blank: If he wants it, he has to sell it.

"The Falcons have a strong case in favor of a new stadium, and I think it's incumbent on them to educate the public on all the facts," Deal said in a statement Friday.

In Miami, the NFL's Dolphins want local and state governments to help renovate Sun Life Stadium. But team officials are navigating public outrage at Major League Baseball's Marlins, which took public money for a new stadium, only to turn around and cut its player payroll by dumping fan favorites.

In Birmingham, the mayor is having trouble persuading city councilors to chip in more money for a new downtown stadium for the region's minor league baseball team, the Barons.

The outcry suggests public opinion is catching up with research that casts doubt on claims that the investments are a good deal for taxpayers because they create jobs and foster economic activity. Lack of statewide support also reflects urban-rural political divides: Voters far from city centers don't believe they benefit from the deals.

Public stadiums dotted the map for most of the 20th century, but the pace of public-private partnerships for new construction or renovation projects has accelerated over the past two decades. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones now controls a $1.15 billion stadium that Arlington, Texas, voters helped finance with increases in sales and hotel taxes. In the New York City area, residents are paying in various ways both for the new $1.6 billion NFL stadium that will host the 2014 Super Bowl and the demolished old stadium it replaced.

In Indianapolis, the state owns 4-year-old Lucas Oil Stadium, for which the state, city and surrounding counties covered most of the $720 million construction cost. Naming rights and a $100 million contribution from the Indianapolis Colts covered the rest. Minnesota officials and the NFL's Vikings last year struck a deal to essentially split the cost of a planned $975 million stadium in Minneapolis.

Blank — the Home Depot co-founder whose team already plays in a publicly financed, publicly owned facility — has spent years in closed-door negotiations with state and city leaders for a new stadium that would not only host Falcons and college football games but could compete for a Super Bowl.

The outline, unveiled in December, assumes about a $1 billion construction cost, with Blank responsible for 70 percent and the state covering the rest with bonds backed by existing hotel and motel taxes in Atlanta. But the plan requires that state legislators raise the state debt limit, and Blank is encountering resistance in the Republican-controlled legislature.

Deal said the Georgia Dome will eventually need a new roof and could become obsolete. He noted that the plan would simply extend existing hotel taxes that cover the original stadium's construction debt, which is nearly paid off. That would put the cost of a new nearby complex on people from "out of state," Deal argued.

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