Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The Georgia World Congress Center Authority weighed in Wednesday with some revised plans for a new Falcons Stadium to replace the less than 20 year old Georgia Dome. The team and the authority have finally ceded the point that building an open air stadium next door to a dome that would remain in place made no economic sense. The remedy is now to build an even more expensive, retractable roof stadium and then tear down the Georgia Dome.
The plan has increased the cost of the new stadium to just under a billion dollars. Strangely, the spokesperson discussing the details with the Atlanta Journal Constitution has now lowered his estimate of funds needed from taxpayers to roughly $300 Million of hotel motel taxes. The state may still weigh in with additional land costs and sales tax waivers, but the lowering of the pool of tax money being used is an interesting yet still unexplained point.
The fact remains that the stadium is still taking hundreds of millions in tax dollars at a time when Georgians are being asked to go to the polls and vote themselves a 17% increase in the amount of sales taxes they pay (based on an increase from 6% to 7% in most counties). An expensive PR campaign is underway in the Atlanta region to convince voters to increase their taxes because Atlanta can’t afford to compete without new infrastructure. Blank dutifully has led the fundraising effort to finance this campaign, though the ads and direct mail will not mention the pool of money that could be used on transportation projects being squandered on this new stadium.
Arthur Blank’s ability to compete with other billionaire league owner’s team revenue is not being put to public vote. His use of tax money robs the region of roughly $700 Million in potential infrastructure upgrades were the State’s priorities not focused on one man and his sports team, but the greater needs of the region. Much like when Governor Perdue funding $20 Million in high speed boat ramps and a fishing museum with his Go Fish! initiative yet put upgrading the state’s trauma network (and a related tax increase) to a public vote, the state has taken care of the whims of insiders and left the responsibility of taking care of basic needs to the public – but only if they are willing to vote for even higher taxes.
The diversion of tax dollars has received little attention in mainstream Atlanta media. WXIA has released polling indicating the public is strongly against public funding for this project. AJC Sports columnist Jeff Schultz has also brought the argument off of the political pages and taken it to a more mainstream audience on the sports page.
“… the Georgia Dome is just fine for spectators. It’s just fine for teams. It’s just fine for a Final Four or a monster truck race or a trade show. Nobody is affected by the fact that it doesn’t make a sufficient ‘cha-ching’ sound for the Falcons other than the Falcons’ owner” he wrote on Wednesday, emphasizing the central point against the funding plan. The wants of Arthur Blank are being placed ahead of the needs of the region and State.
He complemented Blank for his mastery of this game, adding “Give the man credit for this: He’s probably going to pull this off without once alienating the public by threatening to move his team…” While right on the conclusions, I have to quibble with Schultz on this point. The Atlanta Mayor doesn’t tell the Atlanta Press Club that “I will not be the Mayor that loses the Falcons” without an implied or direct threat to move the team. The economic “justifications” used for the stadium make no sense when you look into the numbers and realize they represent the existence of an NFL franchise in the city versus one without.
When you talk to any political insider about this deal, they make it clear it is all about keeping the Falcons in Atlanta. Just because Blank hasn’t taken to a microphone to issue his threat to the public does not mean in any way that the only reason this new stadium is being considered is because of a very clear threat to move this team if he does not.
The Falcons PR team took great exception to an earlier column when I compared this taxpayer shakedown to that of his Home Depot Co-founder Bernie Marcus’ gift to Georgia in the form of an aquarium blocks away. They note Blank’s “investment” will be similar in scope. The difference remains clear: Marcus’ gift had no strings attached. Blank’s “investment requires taxpayer money. Public benefits are secondary to the goal of increasing the value of the team and Blank’s net worth. And, most significantly, it is done not as a public offering to the city, but as an offer the city can’t refuse.
Taxpayers need to become more vocal about this deal, as it is not a “deal” for taxpayers who will be asked to raise their taxes to fund much more critical needs. I’m happy for the Falcons if they choose to replace the Dome. I’m not happy to watch scare tax dollars being squandered on it.