New Falcons stadium is tough sell
With Georgia Dome still viable and Atlanta-area economy in poor shape, time isn't right
ATLANTA -- In the 1990s, before most cold-weather franchises owned indoor facilities to which they could escape when the wind and snow started howling, NFL teams regularly emigrated to the Atlanta Falcons' complex in Suwanee, Ga., for a week to prepare for the playoffs.
After all, before franchises began constructing football Taj Mahals at which to practice, the facility was considered state-of-the-art. The local team, generally eliminated from the playoffs early in December, had no use for the complex at that point. And the weather, even in early January and outdoors, was usually more temperate than the frigid conditions that clubs encountered in precincts like Philadelphia or Chicago or Buffalo, right?
The last part of that equation, that Atlanta was generally moderate enough in January for clubs to seek a relatively balmy safe haven to prepare for the postseason, should be argument No. 1 for the proponents of an outdoor stadium here. Except for this: As James Carville once noted, "It's the economy, stupid."
The Georgia Dome, the home of the Falcons since 1992, is only 18 years old. Those who argue here for a new, open-air stadium -- the subject of incendiary debate in these parts over the past few days -- tend to ignore the raucous crowds (and the built-in home-field advantage) the Dome seems to afford the Falcons, now that they have become competitive again. But perhaps most critical, this burgeoning boomtown, once seemingly immune to the dollars-and-sense fiscal factors that plagued other metropolitan areas but now susceptible to those same economic downturns, probably can't afford new digs for its football team.
Ever since widely respected Falcons president Rich McKay went public last week about the team's desire for a new stadium in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the matter has become a burning issue. Here's what might extinguish the controversy: Essentially every county in the metropolitan area is running an $8 million or $9 million deficit, cutting teachers, increasing the number of mandatory furlough days for those educators who have escaped the pink slip, and slashing services.
Any new stadium that includes taxpayer liability in some sort of public-private consortium, particularly since the Georgia Dome is still regarded by many as a viable venue, is going to be a tough, tough sell.
"This is not a public problem; it's an Arthur Blank [Falcons owner] problem," acknowledged the venerable former Journal-Constitution columnist Furman Bisher, an Atlanta institution once potent enough to have brokered the deal for the Braves to move here from Milwaukee in 1966. "Arthur has a lot to be thankful for, with the Dome and all. I really don't know how the timing could be any worse with this thing."
From a competitive standpoint, with the Falcons coming off the first consecutive winning seasons in franchise history and a current roster seemingly fashioned for an annual playoff run, this would seem the optimum time to strike. From a real-world perspective, however, for the well-intentioned Blank to make a push now for a new stadium is ill-timed.
Public reaction has been one-sided on this point. In an admittedly unscientific Internet poll by the Journal-Constitution, respondents voted 3-1 against the need for a new stadium. Callers to sports-talk radio shows have questioned the sagacity of the Falcons' brass for suggesting a new stadium. Even former Georgia Dome general manager Khalil Johnson acknowledged: "If they need and desire a new stadium, let the owner build it himself. In the current situation, to use tax dollars isn't viable. There are a lot more pressing needs. If Atlanta can't pay for a new stadium, who can? And is there really a need? We're down to the question of want versus need."
This seems to be the overriding sentiment: If Blank wants a new stadium so much, the owner who has done just about everything in his power to make a once-moribund franchise relevant again can dig deep into his own wallet, as Dallas counterpart Jerry Jones did in building his opulent new billion-dollar facility.
Said Matt Edgar, programming director for sports-talk station 790/The Zone: "I think that's the feeling of most people."
The new Giants/Jets stadium, which will open this fall, is the 14th football park to have been either built or significantly upgraded (counting the Superdome, which had to be refurbished following Hurricane Katrina) this decade. League officials have apprised Miami brass that the Dolphins' stadium needs a major overhaul before it can play host to another Super Bowl.
But there presently are no blueprints and no construction mock-ups for new stadiums among existing franchises. No city has broken a sweat or broken ground. And with cities like San Francisco, San Diego and Minnesota fighting so hard for new football palaces and balking at the notion that taxpayers should foot part of the bill, one has to wonder if the NFL's great period of stadium construction has slowed to a halt.
The NFL, which has demonstrated in the past couple years that it is not recession-proof, may have finally arrived at a choking point. In this era of bailouts, federal interventions and mistrust of government, with entities such as the Tea Party gaining greater voice, public funds may be exceedingly difficult to elicit.
One might argue, and correctly so, that there is more urgency in those other cities, where the current buildings are subpar, than in Atlanta. The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome, for instance, lapses after the 2011 campaign. The Georgia Dome, characterized by Johnson as a "damn good building," is only the 10th-oldest stadium in the league. Among other things, it has played host to two Super Bowls, the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Final Four, the ACC basketball tournament, the SEC championship game and Olympic gymnastics.
The history here is, of course, a notable one. But it would be significantly richer if some important policymakers didn't seemingly wield a wrecking ball to every building that is 20 years or older.
The dilapidated, old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was a building that had outlived its usefulness and desperately required replacing. The Georgia Dome doesn't quite have that new-car smell to it anymore, but it is hardly ancient.
Blank has shoveled a lot of his own fortune into making his franchise well, especially after the Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick fiascos, and his largesse, which includes major upgrades to the Georgia Dome to help enhance the game-day experience, has been largely appreciated. But if he and the Falcons are counting on public funds to help finance a Georgia Dome replacement, they might be flagged for a false start.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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