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The stadium effect

What happens when your neighbor is a multimillion dollar shrine to sports



The Rev. Anthony Motley has preached God's word in English Avenue for more than 30 years, yet he's still taken aback when he tours the historic but beleaguered community.

His brown eyes scan the boarded-up homes built among the trees along the narrow streets, the people loitering in the middle of vacant lots, casting hollow stares at passing motorists, and the young men hanging out on street corners, hollering at passers-by and then to lookouts down the street.

The neighborhood, along with neighboring Vine City, has so much potential, says the pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church. Great bones. Great churches. Great people. But Motley, like many Vine City and English Avenue boosters, is disappointed by the poverty, crime, desperation, crumbling houses, and the "idleness."

Near Northside Drive, the reverend looks up to the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome, the glimmering mammoth convention center and covered stadium which literally and figuratively separates the blighted community from downtown.

"This is Lazarus over here," Motley says, comparing Vine City to the poor beggar from the Bible. "Sitting here at the very gate of prosperity and nothing being done about it of any significant nature. ... You see you have this monstrosity towering over all this blight. And that's unseemly. And ungodly, I might add."

For the past year, Motley and several preachers and community leaders have started organizing English Avenue and Vine City residents to prepare for talks with GWCC officials and Falcons executives to decide how the community will be affected by the new facility.

"It's coming," Motley says. "They've decided. And it will come."

As the city, state, and Atlanta Falcons executives finish wrapping up negotiations over a new open-air stadium — they hope to iron out the details, including the exact location, before the end of the year — residents of nearby Vine City and English Avenue, which for years have lived in the shadow of the Dome and adjoining GWCC, are preparing for the next massive structure next door. They know all too well the mix of enthusiasm, promise, money, and challenges the new stadium will bring. In fact, they are already organizing to be sure they have a seat at the table. The underlying question remains whether it's possible to create a stadium in Atlanta that trumps, or at least mimics, those found in other cities — stadiums that are part of the community, rather than a burden on them.

"This is the fourth time we've built a stadium in a poor black neighborhood," says Larry Keating, a professor emeritus at Georgia Tech's College of City and Regional Planning. "That's wrong. And that tells people in those neighborhoods you don't count, just get out of my way. That's real ugly. That's a real punch in the nose."

Motley and other community leaders, working in partnership with the Dome, hope to change that.

If everything goes according to plan, Arthur Blank and his football team will kick off the 2017 season in a brand-new, $1 billion stadium with a retractable roof, built with mostly his own cash and up to $300 million in revenues from the city's hotel/motel tax.

Officials have narrowed the stadium's possible site down to two locations: a large parcel north of the sprawling congress center at Northside Drive and Ivan Allen Boulevard and an undefined area between the Dome and Castleberry Hill. All parties reportedly prefer the latter, though no decision has been made.

Expect much debate on these issues. But often lost in the chatter over publicly funded stadiums, site locations, renderings, and the like is the very real issue of how these facilities, which are used relatively few days and nights out of the year, affect the communities where they're dropped.

Atlanta's stadiums have generated billions of dollars in economic activity and hired thousands of people over the years. They have also created countless unforgettable moments, from Hank Aaron's shot to left-centerfield to break Babe Ruth's home run record to Muhammad Ali lighting the 1996 Summer Olympics cauldron.

But for the neighborhoods surrounding these multimillion-dollar complexes, the stadiums have been a mixed blessing, delivering traffic, noise, gypsy parking lots, and boorish behavior from tailgating fans. And although the stadiums have added a bit of prestige to the city, they've also created dead zones in the surrounding areas on days teams aren't playing.

"I've scratched my head over this a long time," says Harvey Newman, a recently retired Georgia State University professor considered an expert on Atlanta's political history. "In Atlanta, the impacts [of stadiums] have tended to be negative. I don't know if it has to be that way."

To understand today's "stadium effect" in Atlanta, you have to begin in the late 1950s. Before there was the Georgia Dome or Turner Field, there was Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the ring-shaped, open-air, cookie-cutter ballpark that hosted Atlanta Braves and Falcons games. Built in the mid-1960s near the recently constructed interstate system just south of downtown, the $18 million arena — that's around $131 million in today's dollars — was built on spec by then-Mayor Ivan Allen to lure Milwaukee's ball team south and boost Atlanta's profile.

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