Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The Georgia Aquarium is the jewel of downtown Atlanta. The Aquarium is the result of a $250 Million gift from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, which continues to give in the form of a revitalized downtown. The world class tourist attraction anchors the western end of the city and is the catalyst for new shops and residential development as well as being the center of a tourist district which also includes the new World of Coke.
Just steps away sits the proposed site of an even bigger charitable gift. A small patch of land is set to be acquired from the Atlanta Housing Authority courtesy of a $15 Million dollar earmark in the proposed budget working its way through the legislature. This will be added to roughly $400 Million from a hotel motel tax that was extended without much public fanfare by the legislature in 2010.
Yet another gift from the legislature is expected to be added this session, as a waiver of sales tax on construction materials used on this site of “regional importance” will be considered. All totaled, we’re looking at about a cool half billion dollars of charity involved in this new project.
Another Home Depot co-founder is at the center of this gift as well, but this time, he’s the recipient. The state of Georgia is preparing to give Arthur Blank’s Atlanta Falcons franchise over half of the proceeds needed to build a new stadium.
Forbes magazine ranks the value of each NFL franchise, and places the Falcons near the bottom of the teams. In 2011, Blank’s team was ranked 27th of 32 the teams with a franchise value of $814 Million. Blank’s estimated 90% ownership stake represents a large share of his estimated $1.3 Billion net worth.
The Falcons continue to rank near the bottom in franchise value mainly due to their stadium deal with the Georgia World Congress Center authority. As Forbes cited in their 2010 ranking, “The problem for the Falcons is that their take from the Dome’s net profits was only $5 million, not enough to make the team competitive with teams that control state-of-the-art stadiums.”
The Falcons are valued roughly one billion dollars less than the most valuable franchise, the Dallas Cowboys. One of the things that Dallas has that the Falcons do not is a new, state of the art stadium. One of the things Dallas owner Jerry Jones did that Arthur Blank apparently will not is build a new stadium with private funds.
Atlanta voters will go to the polls twice this year and asked to tax themselves for much needed infrastructure. In March, those in the city of Atlanta will be asked to extend a sales tax which will collect $400 Million to pay for the city’s ongoing sewer improvement program – almost the exact same amount being given to Blank.
In July, voters will be asked to add an additional one percent sales tax to pay for regional transportation projects. With federal matching funds, the amount of money being given to build yet another stadium downtown could instead be used to fund $720 Million in transportation infrastructure.
When asked, city and state leaders are clear they do not want to make the connection to the half billion dollar gift they are all prepared to give to one of Atlanta’s wealthiest residents while pleading for area residents, currently ranked as last in “financial security”, to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for critical infrastructure projects.
Publicly, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed bluntly stated “I am not going to play that game”, stating he would not be the Mayor that loses the Falcons to another city. Privately, members of the legislature and other involved leaders state the same, using the words “ego” and “Arthur Blank” frequently in the same sentences.
Owners of sports franchises who take an active interest in their franchises are naturally competitive people. No man wants to be the lowest ranked among his peers, even if that ranking means he is among the poorest of the billionaires in his club. If that means that he can convert a half billion dollars of taxpayer money to buttress his position among NFL owners then so be it. At least we’ll be able to watch a Super Bowl from our homes knowing that once in the next 20 years it will be occurring just miles away.
And the next morning, those of us who live in the Atlanta area will get up and begin our commute which will rank among the longest in the nation, with infrastructure still inadequate to support current area residents nor the businesses which we wish to recruit here.
But at least we will sleep soundly that night knowing the Falcons don’t play 8 games per year in Los Angeles instead of Atlanta.