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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson
No doubt, we live in a disposable era when appliances, electronics and vehicles all seem to become obsolete soon after they come out of the box. But of the items considered temporary, it’s hard to imagine a football stadium making that list.
The Georgia Dome opened in Atlanta 21 years ago. Built for $214 million, it has served as home of the Atlanta Falcons in addition to two Super Bowls, the 1996 Olympics, college football and basketball events and more. It’s safe to say that $200 mil was a pretty good investment.
Though fans are happy with the facility, the Falcons want more. By the time the team’s lease with the Dome ends later this decade, owner Arthur Blank wants his team playing in a new $1 billion palace with a pop-open roof.
There nothing much wrong with the Dome; a little paint and some fix-ups are all it needs, normal for a building of its age and heavy use. This is about money; as other teams around the NFL build bigger and better palaces to reap more money from pricey seats and luxury boxes, and every other kid on the block wants the same.
For all other events, the Dome seems more than adequate. Fans fill every seat for the SEC Championship game and Chick-fil-A (formerly Peach) Bowl. The NCAA Final Four is back this year and may return. The Dome is accessible, comfortable and fans like it.
The only thing missing are Super Bowls, which now go to the biggest, gaudiest new stadiums. They’re even playing one in the dead of winter in New York next year; so much for Atlanta’s 2000 ice storm being a factor in the city’s snubs. But since most of us can only afford to watch the annual spectacle on TV anyway, they might as well play it on Mars.
So a plan was devised for the team to put up $700 million for a new facility, the rest to come from a hike in the state’s hotel-motel tax. Yet as soon as that idea was floated — right about the time the Falcons were bounced from the NFL playoffs – public sentiment turned against it. Georgians are balking at such a lavish expense at a time when government budgets at every level are squeezed tight. Anyway, tearing down a perfectly good stadium not yet 25 years old seems wasteful and wrong.
Those concerns rippled through the state legislature, and lawmakers backpedaled away from the plan. That led Gov. Nathan Deal to ask Blank to boost the team’s share another $100 million. Now Atlanta is considering aiding the funding as well with its own tax plan.
When lawmakers balked, the NFL did what it usually does: Twist arms. First was floated the idea the team might move if it didn’t get the stadium it wants. Others have played that bluff, and some follow through, the Colts famously moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984 in the dead of night.
When Blank nixed that idea, it became known the team would entertain a move to the Atlanta suburbs. Clayton County chimed in saying it would be willing to find such a site near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Flowery Branch, home of the team’s headquarters, also may be in the mix, as the mayor tweeted last week. As attractive as that idea may be, it’s a long shot. Even if a site were available and funding secured, transporting tens of thousands of fans down two lanes of Interstate 985 seems iffy, and with no MARTA to ease the strain. The cost to upgrade the highway to handle the swarm might be as much or more than what the state would pay for a downtown stadium. And there’s that pesky airport thing; locating a stadium an hour-plus drive from the regional airport is a nonstarter for a league that doesn’t like inconvenience.
The suburban feint likely is a ruse to force Georgia and Atlanta into a deal. Few areas outside of town have the highways, public transit or other infrastructure support a facility of this size and scope. We’re not just talking a new hardware store, a civic center or a mall; this is a building that could hold all of the above and then some, up to 100,000 people with a parking lot to accommodate them all.
We don’t blame Blank for his stadium push. He’s playing by rules set by a league that isn’t shy about strong-arming cities and states to get its way. Blank has been an engaged, responsible owner who has created an organization that is among the league’s elite. The Falcons are good neighbors, and contribute much to the local economy and community events. And their success on the field has made all of us proud.
But when the economy remains weak, it’s hard to defend committing public money to a project that qualifies as a “want” rather than a “need.” As much as we’d like the Falcons to have the stadium they prefer, it should not obligate taxpayers struggling to fund other, more crucial needs. If and when taxes are raised, it must be for education, health and public safety, not a fancy new home for a football team that seems to be doing just fine in its current home.