Domeward Bound No More

UPDATE: Legendary Lincoln County football coach Larry Campbell announced his retirement this week, which made the posting of this report and video timely, as Campbell and the Red Devils made the Georgia Dome their second home. Since this report and video were produced in the summer of 2013, there has been a $50 million publicly-funded parking deck added to the Falcons’ new stadium project, a $200 million change for HVAC (Augusta Tee Center readers will snicker at that.), and the land acquisition price soared.

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Nothing is loved in Lincolnton, Georgia more than its Red Devils football team. 14 state championships in the small school classification. Georgia’s winningest coach in Larry Campbell. More times than any other school as state runners-up. So many trips to the Georgia Dome to play in state play-offs that there is a slogan that rises every year here – “We are Dome-ward Bound.” 8 times would tend to do that for doting fans. They look for greatness under the Georgia Dome, but sadly those quests won’t be the same thanks to the work of another crew of devils, the Legislature that frolics under the Gold Dome.

At the end of a not-distant season, the Red Devils won’t be Dome-ward bound, for the legislature decided to bequeath $1.2 billion (over the next 35 years) of public funds dedicated to the Dome to Arthur Blank, the 90% owner of the Atlanta Falcons Football team, in the form of a new stadium to be leased and operated by the Falcons. The stadium costs are put at more than a billion dollars, but with all of the likely cost overruns probably will exceed Blank’s $1.6 billion net worth (just this month upped to $1.7 billion) by the time the new retractable-roofed stadium is completed.

Dastardly deeds that small town folk cannot really understand underpin the arrangement. After receiving Blank’s hefty campaign donations in recent years, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle killed a key conservative right to work bill that stood in the way. There was a failure to account for the damage that losing $19 million in hotel tax funding and $15 million in profits does to Georgia World Congress Center’s finances. Then World Congress’ own consultant suggested claw-back terms or profit sharing with the public in case 90% owner Blank sells the team with its $1.6 billion stadium lease, but it isn’t in the final agreement, which contains a provision only that the Falcon’s cannot relocate without a penalty.

The legislature under the gold dome OK’d renewing the hotel-motel tax and using it to build a new stadium in 2011, but after 73% of Georgians arose in opposition, Governor Nathan Deal took negotiation of the final sell-out to the Falcons behind closed doors. Then it came to rest in the hands of Atlanta Mayor Kassim Reed, who rammed the agreement through a pliant City Council.
The Falcons and their supporters loudly claim that the team will be paying $800 million and the public only $200 million. Reed emerged with the final agreement and a press release saying that the public funds are “capped at $200 million,” but when if you read the legal documents, the terms said the funding will start at $200 million. Worse than that, analysis of various consultant reports puts public stadium funding at nearly $700 million, with several Hundred $millions more in operations costs funded by hotel motel tax once the stadium is built. The real numbers look like they are the reverse of what the Falcons’ claimed.

The Georgia Dome that the Lincoln County Red Devils played in is property of the state. 60% of dome use was not for the Falcons. The state was making $15 million a year while hosting high school, SEC, and NCAA football. Concerns were expressed in negotiations that such events might be be “not on economic Terms” after the Falcons take over operations of the new stadium. After all, they expect that ticket prices will increase 20% and that food and beverage prices will go up 44% to nearly $18 per seat. Can small town fans afford that? The costs are going to be so high that Mayor Reed’s final deal provides public assistance of $3.5 million a year, with automatic 2% increases, for a total of $184 million to “Stage Other Events.” “Other events according to the legalese are non-Falcon events, like Red Devil playoff games and all of the other ones that our Dome’s profits used to provide for.

The San Francisco 49ers sold naming rights to their new stadium for $220 million. Georgia and Atlanta gave their naming rights up to the Falcons at no charge in the deal.

When this correspondent posed a list of questions to World Congress before the revised deal was public, they refused to answer. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, where Blank sits on the board of directors, has been silent on nearly all of these things. Oh, and don’t expect to hold Nathan Deal or World Congress’ Frank Poe to accountable. They will be retired before the damage is known.

In news breaking in June, the World Congress Center just approved this design, which USA Today Sports calls CRAZY, writing “Will this thing actually get built?”

Despite these questions, huge costs, and conflicts, it appears likely that a perfectly good Georgia Dome will fall to the wrecking ball to yield to the Falcons new rookery. The public and the Red Devils will find their sell-outs under an intact gold dome across town, with the only dome-ward bound being lobbyists looking for ever larger Blank checks.

    OPINION