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Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

If you ask C.T. Martin, the Atlanta City Council's most-tenured member, the year since elected officials voted to help fund a new, $1.2 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium has been full of strife, handshake deals, discord --- and no surprises.

Martin ranked the council's decision to issue $246 million in bonds backed by hotel-motel taxes --- made one year ago Tuesday --- a 9 out of 10 on the Richter scale. Only a few votes, such as hiking water rates or renaming the airport, sent more ripple effects throughout the city during his 24 years on council, he said.

"We knew there would be controversy. We knew people would group up and take issue, remembering what happened the last time," he said, citing the uproar in downtown communities during construction of the Georgia Dome. "It's been a negotiation and a changing set of scenarios, with people jockeying to get what they want and need. That's a natural thing."

Without a doubt, the council's historic 11 to 4 vote has generated ongoing heat: community backlash, legal challenges, talks to buy out two historic churches, with the Atlanta Braves' decision to bolt to the suburbs further stirring the pot.

Taxpayer watchdog groups and some residents still question whether the public will ultimately see a return from its investment in the stadium. The city plans to use $200 million from the bond issue to contribute toward construction, with the rest used for financing costs and a debt service reserve fund.

Mayor Kasim Reed, who championed the effort for the city to help finance the project, said he feels "reasonably good" about progress made in the past year.

"But I have all along said that major stadiums are always hard," he said last week. "I imagined it would be a long laborious effort, and it has."

The drama surrounding the retractable roof arena, scheduled to open for the 2017 season, is far from over. Here are some of the storylines we'll follow in Year Two:

Will neighborhoods be satisfied?

The new stadium has stirred up deep-seated tensions between the low-income communities sitting at its feet, elected officials calling the shots and the football franchise set to profit from the project.

Those rifts were exacerbated during a series of meetings last year over community benefits to English Avenue, Vine City and Castleberry Hill. Those neighborhoods are set to receive about $30 million in funds --- $15 million from the city's West Side tax allocation district and $15 million from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

Residents and officials clashed early on over wording referring to the community benefits package as a plan --- not an agreement. Agreement, many believe, makes such commitments legally binding. City officials eventually changed the legislation to "plan/agreement," but the issue has remained a source of contention.

Now those community groups are applying for grants from Invest Atlanta, and soon the Blank Foundation, to help fund human services and economic development projects. How those dollars will be awarded could temper --- or inflame --- the dissatisfaction.

We're also waiting to see what comes of a neighborhood group's legal challenge to the bonds, not to mention hundreds of millions more in future hotel-motel tax revenue.

The group believes the 2010 state law authorizing extension of the existing Atlanta hotel-motel tax for the purpose of replacing the Georgia Dome is unconstitutional because it morphed a "general law" with statewide applicability into a "special law" applying only to one situation.

Some of the neighborhood groups are also part of a recently formed coalition called Atlantans for a Fair Deal, which wants the city council to restructure the stadium agreement with the state and football team. Whether or not their efforts will hinder the project has yet to be seen.

Can team stick to schedule?

The legal challenge to the bonds and the lingering opposition to the public financing have not slowed the Falcons so far. The team is plowing ahead to keep the project on track and on schedule.

The Falcons recently hired two key executives to help plan and operate the stadium and continue to seek a Major League Soccer expansion team to play in it.

An MLS franchise has been part of Falcons owner Arthur Blank's vision for the stadium all along, reflected in architectural plans that show how the mammoth building can be transformed into a cozier soccer venue by closing off the upper-deck seats by lowering built-in fabric screens. Blank has been in off-and-on talks with MLS since 2008.

"We're getting close," MLS commissioner Don Garber said last week. "We're excited about Atlanta ... . It's a market that needs a professional (soccer) team at the highest level ... . We're confident it's going to do really well there."

Falcons president Rich McKay recently described the MLS negotiations as "far along."

The Falcons recently reorganized their corporate structure to assimilate the stadium, which the team will operate under terms of its deal with the city and state.

Scott Jenkins, formerly vice president of ballpark operations for Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners, was named the stadium's general manager. Reporting to McKay, he'll be involved in planning and construction over the next three years and will run stadium operations after it opens.

Jared Miller, formerly a vice president with NCR Corp., was named chief technology officer, charged with making sure the stadium has leading-edge technology.

Stadium architects continue to refine plans. Recent renderings add detail to a large plaza just inside a wall of glass --- a window to the city, the Falcons call it --- behind one end zone. The renderings also offer a new view of the 360-degree, 62,000-square-foot video board that will ring the roof opening.

Money spent so far on design, site prep, roadwork, etc., has come from the Falcons, allowing the project to move forward before the city issues bonds. City officials hope to do that by July, though the legal challenge makes that date uncertain.

Where will the churches go?

The project is changing the landscape of surrounding neighborhoods. Specifically, we're watching to see what comes of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, now being rerouted for stadium construction, and where Mount Vernon and Friendship Baptist churches go.

Demolition of Mount Vernon, which sold for $14.5 million, begins this week.

Both churches said they plan to stay in the community, but they haven't announced new locations.

"It's a matter of trying to get the right situation at the right price," said Lloyd Hawk, chairman of the board of trustees at Friendship, which sold for $19.5 million.

The churches have designs on property at Morris Brown College, which is in bankruptcy proceedings and recently received court approval to sell its 37 acres.

The college reportedly would like to sell its property to one developer, but a letter from real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle on behalf of the school suggests Morris Brown may be reconsidering a city offer to buy the land.

The college reportedly would like to sell its property to one developer, but Councilman Martin said it may be reconsidering a city offer to buy the land.

Last year Morris Brown rejected a $10 million offer from the city. The school faces about $30 million in debt.

Reed said the city is willing to revive talks with Morris Brown. If so, the city could potentially sell or lease portions to other entities, such as the churches, while allowing Morris Brown a space to operate.

Hawk said "we would definitely be willing to sit down and talk (with) everyone about that."

Mount Vernon, which just last week celebrated its final service in its home of 53 years, will temporarily move to Carver College on Cascade Road.

Central United Methodist Church, across an intersection from the future stadium, is also affected. Church leaders worry that the MLK Drive rerouting will send increased traffic its way and pose safety problems.

Officials from Reed's administration have met with Central United leaders, but no resolution has yet been reached.

If you ask C.T. Martin, the Atlanta City Council's most-tenured member, the year since elected officials voted to help fund a new, $1.2 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium has been full of strife, handshake deals, discord --- and no surprises.

Martin ranked the council's decision to issue $246 million in bonds backed by hotel-motel taxes --- made one year ago Tuesday --- a 9 out of 10 on the Richter scale. Only a few votes, such as hiking water rates or renaming the airport, sent more ripple effects throughout the city during his 24 years on council, he said.

"We knew there would be controversy. We knew people would group up and take issue, remembering what happened the last time," he said, citing the uproar in downtown communities during construction of the Georgia Dome. "It's been a negotiation and a changing set of scenarios, with people jockeying to get what they want and need. That's a natural thing."

Without a doubt, the council's historic 11 to 4 vote has generated ongoing heat: community backlash, legal

ROAD CLOSURES COMING

* As preparations continue for the start of stadium construction --- the Falcons plan a ceremonial ground-breaking in May --- several streets around the Georgia Dome will be permanently closed.

* Portions of Haynes Street and Mitchell Street Connector are scheduled to close Monday.

* Georgia Dome Drive closes on March 24.

* Three parking lots near the Dome --- the Orange, Purple and Silver lots --- will be permanently closed this week.

 

March 16, 2014

 

 
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