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Monumental effort involved in getting Falcons to Hall County
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Former Atlanta Falcons Coach Dan Reeves visits with Kit Dunlap at the groundbreaking in 1999 for the Atlanta Falcons complex in Flowery Branch.

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Frank Norton Jr., one of the key forces in luring the Atlanta Falcons to Hall County, recalls officials approving the agreement with the NFL franchise.

There were plenty of naysayers.

Even those working feverishly behind the scenes battled a rocky road in their nearly two-year quest to lure the Atlanta Falcons to Hall County, a deal finally sealed in late 1999.

"We heard ‘no' probably about 10 times on why we wouldn't be suitable," said Dennis Bergin, who served as Flowery Branch city manager at the time.

"There were better than 40 locations the Falcons were considering, and initially we were perceived to be one of the least likely places (as the team's headquarters)," said Bergin, now Lula's city manager.

"It was monumental that we were able to bring the Falcons here because there were so many other communities that were out there fighting just like we were to come to that point."

It might as well be ancient history now, as the Falcons organization has operated for years out of its lush, gated complex off Falcon Parkway and Hog Mountain Road.

The Falcons trotted onto the field for their first-ever practice - described then as a "light walk-through" - in Flowery Branch in August 2000. Five years later they moved their training camp to the Flowery Branch location as well.

Now, the team once again plans to open certain morning and afternoon practices to the public beginning Friday and running through Aug. 22.

Gainesville resident Ed Waller, a Falcons season-ticket holder for nearly 30 years, still remembers how he felt when the Falcons' move to the 50-acre site in Hall County was announced.

"I was just ecstatic. Being a Falcon fan my whole life, I just couldn't believe it," he said. "I wouldn't have far to drive to watch them practice."

Before Flowery Branch, the Falcons had nested in Suwanee for about 20 years. The team outgrew its digs in that rapidly growing North Gwinnett city and started looking elsewhere.

"We had worked on the project for over a year through a lot of different trials and tribulations from a first introduction to the Falcons through a mutual friend," said Gainesville real estate executive Frank Norton Jr., who was instrumental in bringing the NFL team to Hall.

Then, officials worked with Tommy Nobis, then the Falcons' vice president of corporate development, on "trying to present Hall County in its best light."

"We had a couple of false starts. We had everything set up for them to tour Riverside Military Academy, thinking that would be a good training camp venue for them. The day we had that all lined up was a Monday after a game, and (then-Coach) Dan Reeves had suffered a heart attack."

Norton recalled the process evolving from the Falcons looking for a new summer camp to relocating their complex.

Hall's final presentation to the Falcons was Aug. 30, 1999, Norton's birthday, at the newly opened Davis Middle School.

"We converted one of their unused classrooms into a major presentation room. We outfitted all the dignitaries and government officials in collared shirts that had the Falcon logo and had Flowery Branch, Ga. on it," Norton said.

The presentation lasted about an hour.

"It was perfect," he said. "We heard four days later we had been selected. ... Within about two weeks, we had signed an agreement."

The Falcons and Hall County officials announced the agreement in late September in a festive event at then Gainesville College.

According to newspaper reports at the time, the atrium of the Continuing Education Building was overflowing with well-wishers and welcome signs. Davis Middle cheerleaders also attended.

"Needless to say, I'm overwhelmed," said Taylor Smith, the Falcons' president at the time. "I don't know why I didn't expect this. I should have expected this. This is the way we've been treated from day one. ... Y'all have made us feel special."

In an interview last week, Nobis, who left the Falcons several years ago, recalled the transition from Suwanee.

"(The Flowery Branch site) included the housing and dining and everything," said Nobis, who was the first player ever drafted by the Falcons in 1966.

"It was a total complex, which really was very unique for an NFL team to have that type of facility," he said.

"It always seemed we got what we needed ... and certainly, in those facilities (in Flowery Branch), we took a step up."

The Falcons' facilities were first-class then and continue to be top notch.

"(Blank) has provided us with arguably one of the top three training facilities in the NFL. Some teams that are looking to build new complexes come to Flowery Branch and check us out," said Reggie Roberts, vice president of football communications for the Falcons.

"We are the only team in the league to have their own (on-site) dormitories for training camp - a lot of teams have to go to a college in another city to train and stay in hotels. Everyone associated with our camp walks probably 200 yards to get to (the practice field).

"Having our own facilities really helps the players, coaches and everyone involved get on with the business of trying to put a winning team on the field."

Bergin recalled one major bump along the way to bringing the Falcons to Hall.

After the list of possible sites was trimmed to five, "an announcement was made that Stone Mountain was going to get it," he said.

"I'm sure a few people remember that, because it wasn't good news. But we continued to work and keep the (talks) going ... with the idea that if this doesn't pan out, we'd like to still be part of the equation."

Philip Wilheit, chairman of the Gainesville-Hall Development Authority, remembered it well.

"Stone Mountain had promised to build them everything for free and do all types of things for them at no cost, and we felt like ... the proposal Stone Mountain made at the time was impossible," Wilheit said.

"Frank, being as persistent as he is, and there's none better, stayed on them, and sure enough (Stone Mountain) couldn't deliver what they had promised down there."

Bergin said he believes the best thing that came out of the effort to lure the Falcons was "to show when you collectively work between the private sector and the public sector what you accomplish when everyone is on the same page."

The development authority factored highly in the project, agreeing to issue $20 million in taxable revenue bonds.

The authority, formed in 1964, has the power to offer bond financing for industrial projects throughout the county.

Other incentives included 10 years of tax exemption, which ends this year, on the headquarters/training center. The complex has been assessed at $24.2 million.

Chief Appraiser Mike Henderson said the exemption will expire with the 2010 tax year, meaning the Falcons will not owe taxes until December 2011.

The dormitory site is assessed at about $5.2 million and has a partial exemption that also expires this year.

The Falcons could end up paying about $295,000 in taxes on the site, or the equivalent of about seven county employees, said Nikki Young, spokeswoman for Hall County.

The tax exemption, Wilheit figures, really "cost the county nothing."

"The taxes being generated on the property (before the Falcons) was about $3,000 a year," he said.

"That was a pretty small price to pay to have your name on the news a dozen times a day with the Falcons and the prestige of having the Falcons camp here."

 

 

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