We've got nothing against football, football stadiums, or football owners. We also like new, shiny things. Which means we should have nothing against the idea of a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons — in theory. But since it now looks like the new open-air stadium will most certainly be built, if our reading of the proposed budget and assorted political tea leaves is correct, then we should tell you what we are against, since it pertains: ramrodding.
Twenty years ago, the Georgia Dome was built so that the Falcons could play in a new, state-of-the-art stadium. But technology's improved and new design standards in football stadiums have allowed owners ways to earn more cash by selling and packing their team's new home with luxury box suites. Falcons owner Arthur Blank wants a new stadium for these reasons, and because the NFL won't award the city a Super Bowl (i.e., arguably big payday) without one.
You can bet Blank and company would want this new stadium to be financed by some public funding — such as taxes levied on hotel and motel rooms within the city limits, which could generate as much as $400 million. That sounds like a great idea — let the tourists pay! — until you start thinking about Atlanta's myriad problems.
Suppose we can raise $400 million or so from a hotel tax. Shouldn't we first decide if that's an idea the city wants to allow and then let the city decide how to spend that money instead of framing the debate as a yes/no on a new stadium? In other words, shouldn't the city, once we determine that we want to raise $400 million that way, decide if a stadium is the best use for those funds? Especially one with fewer seats, more luxury suites, and blocks away from the nearest MARTA station?
Of course. The problem is, so far as we can tell, we currently can't use those hotel taxes for anything other than projects which boost tourism or support a state-owned facility. Or to build a new stadium on the Georgia World Congress Center property.
How about paying down the city's $922 million backlog of sidewalk, pothole, and bridge improvements? (Tourists, much like our suburban neighbors who work in Atlanta during the day, use our infrastructure without paying for it.) Or, as conservative columnist Charlie Harper recently suggested, running cash-strapped MARTA's trains and buses. Or the Atlanta Beltline. More affordable housing? Or public safety? Things the city actually needs?
To do that, we'd most likely need to change the law — which is exactly what we're challenging a state lawmaker to do this legislative session. Sure, it's unlikely such a measure would pass. But if the state or the Falcons think that spending as much as $400 million to help build a new stadium is worth more than investing in local projects, then they should be forced to say so in committee meetings. If they can't, then why are we even having this conversation?