You most likely picked up this newspaper — or, for those of you reading online, logged on to this website — after driving on a road that looked like it was blasted by mortar rounds. Or you waited too long for a MARTA train. Perhaps you walked on cracked sidewalks or the side of the road. You probably passed a homeless person, a struggling artist, or a kid who dropped out of high school. You saw all this in the course of your day because this is Atlanta and, like every city, Atlanta has problems.
Some of those problems will never be solved because cities are always growing and morphing. That constant evolution makes cities interesting. Still, people who live and work in cities want to see problems fixed. To do so requires money, which is always in short supply, even when the economy is booming.
But there always seems to be cash for feel-good projects pushed by people with sway.
On March 7, Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the city and the Atlanta Falcons had finally agreed to terms for building a new football stadium. The facility will be located near downtown, most likely south of the still-functioning, 21-year-old Georgia Dome, which will be demolished and turned into parking. The city stepped in to handle negotiations after Gov. Nathan Deal proved he couldn't get state lawmakers to approve public funding for the estimated $1 billion project. But the years-in-the-making, behind-closed-doors effort to help Atlanta keep up with the Joneses in the stadium game is nothing to celebrate.
As expected, at least $200 million in revenues from the city's lucrative hotel and motel tax will be handed over to the Falcons and billionaire owner Arthur Blank for construction of the new sports complex. The state's not trumpeting the fact that it will provide the downtown land, which by some estimates is valued as high as $24 million, and potentially untold millions of dollars in tax exemptions.
The Falcons would foot the remainder of the bill, with a lot of help from sponsorship deals, premium seat licenses, and other means. The team would pay $50 million for stadium-related infrastructure projects, though that figure is expected to be much higher and it's unclear who will cover the difference. In addition, Blank's eponymous philanthropic foundation would invest $15 million in Vine City, English Avenue, and Castleberry Hill. Penny McPhee, the foundation's president, told CL in January that the organization would carefully select projects and programs that would boost the people living in those neighborhoods.
The Atlanta City Council is one of several government bodies that must still OK the deal, which could happen before the end of March. We hope someone from one of those agencies asks what we're giving up by giving away that cash. And while they're at it, why we're still letting the state dick us around. Our mayor has been scratching Deal's back for the last few years and we, the citizens, have yet to see a "thank you."
It's a long story, but allow us to explain briefly. The biggest chunk of the proposed stadium's public funding — $200 million, though there are reports that this figure could rise much higher — comes from the hotel and motel tax paid by the conventioneers, wedding guests, and tourists who spend the night in Atlanta.
Stadium supporters, including the mayor, argue that it's a no-brainer to tap this funding source for the project, since 86 percent of the tax's revenues come from out-of-towners. No property tax hikes! No sales tax increases! No risk to the city! Plus, in a move designed to retain the Falcons, state lawmakers amended the law in 2010 so the tax could only fund a new football stadium.
Yes, state lawmakers decide how tax money generated in Georgia's capital city — a place they use as a playground during the legislative session but malign when they're running for re-election — is allocated.
It's highly unlikely that state lawmakers would amend the law and redirect the hotel/motel tax revenues to fund a cause that's more worthy (and still qualify as tourism-related), such as better roads and infrastructure, arts funding, a stronger police force, the Atlanta Beltline ... the list goes on. Something other than a stadium whose sole purpose is to boost Falcons' revenue, coax fans to leave their couches, and host a Super Bowl. The topic has been broached in the past, apparently. And the mayor, even with his tight ties to the state, told CL last week that he didn't think such a measure would pass even if introduced. Local control is a beautiful thing, except when it involves a majority Democrat city in a Republican state.
We do think such a proposal would pass if it enjoyed the support of the governor and the mayor. But that possibility never even came up. Because the Falcons "need" their stadium.
Look, Blank has been a fine corporate citizen. And his contributions, both in the past and pledged as part of the stadium, are commendable. He's also being smart — if the government's gonna offer you money, why not take it?
Our lawmakers, on the other hand, are showing their asses. It's exhausting to see these brazen reach-arounds to the private sector. Especially when the ripple effects include creating more blacktop parking lots (that is, unless the parking is underground) and the potential demolition of historic buildings such as Friendship Baptist Church, where Spelman College was founded.
Why is the city investing $200 million for a short-term boost in construction work and simply replacing Georgia Dome jobs rather than pumping that money into infrastructure fixes and projects that would make the city a place where people not only want to visit, but live? And what guarantee will we have three decades after the stadium's opening, when the Falcons' contract to stay in the new facility ends, that we're not discussing another new stadium?
The mayor has been working hard for the state in so many ways. He's escorted Deal — a birther Republican who delayed his resignation from Congress to run for governor to vote against President Obama's Affordable Care Act — to Washington, D.C., to lobby the commander-in-chief's administration for federal funding to help deepen the Savannah Port. He helped the governor lobby for a favorable loan for a high-tech road project along I-75/575 in Cobb County. When the effort to pass the T-SPLOST was in full swing, Reed covered Deal's rear by playing the public face of the proposal for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
The state has not returned the favor. It hasn't stepped up to help Grady Memorial Hospital, the foundation for metro Atlanta's medical system. Nor has it thrown a lifeline, or even an olive branch, to cash-strapped MARTA. There are times it's been less of a bully, sure — but it hasn't been a partner. It's myopic. And our mayor needs to remind Deal that we've yet to see payback for the help he's already provided.
The stadium will most likely get built. In 2017, when the Falcons hope to have the facility completed, people might marvel at how it connects with the surrounding neighborhoods. Maybe it will one day be home to a pro soccer team and host a Super Bowl or World Cup matches. The Falcons may start enjoying increased revenues. Fans lucky (and wealthy) enough to score tickets will cheer. Perhaps the surrounding neighborhoods will finally see long-deserved improvements. It could help business at hotels and downtown restaurants and might trickle down to the maids and kitchen crews.
Or it could be a sad repeat of what happened with the Georgia Dome and Georgia World Congress Center construction, blocking off Vine City and English Avenue from downtown's economic resurgence, helping to create slums in the shadow of skyscrapers. A Super Bowl is fine and fun, but it doesn't make a city more livable or more stable. It's not a true investment in the people that live here and do the work of making this city their home.