Zell Miller: The stadium investment

December 17, 2012 

In any business, if you're making an investment, especially in lean times, you want to make sure you're getting a healthy return on it.

In the history of our great state, few investments have paid off as handsomely as the Georgia Dome, which forever changed the landscape of our state. Before its construction, Atlanta had never hosted a Super Bowl, lacked a major event venue and hadn't hosted a Final Four since 1977, when the event was played at the Omni.

Since opening in 1992, the Dome has hosted two Super Bowls, the annual SEC Championship, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and, come this April, three Final Fours, not to mention the concerts, crusades and conventions that also attract tourists from around the world. And let's not forget the most defining moment in Atlanta's sports history, the 1996 Olympic Games. The Dome was a missing piece of the puzzle that enabled us to land the Olympics.

In total, the Georgia Dome has returned $10 billion in economic impact to the state of Georgia. Not bad for an investment of a little more than $200 million. Our willingness to make that investment paved the way to more than two decades of success and opportunity.

Now the Georgia World Congress Center Authority is focused on plans for a new stadium on its campus in downtown Atlanta. As the Atlanta Falcons approach the end of their lease at the Georgia Dome, the Authority is thoughtfully planning for a stadium that will not only serve the long-term needs of their most important tenant, but also makes sure the GWCC holds its competitive edge in attracting high-profile sporting events, concerts, conventions and other events far into the future.

In order to repeat the financial success of the Dome, I think it is important that we understand how and why it came into existence.

When I was lieutenant governor, we knew we needed a large-scale venue in downtown Atlanta, but were struggling to find a way to pay for the construction of the project. Back then, the Falcons' lease with Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was expiring and the team was hinting at moving out of the state. Led by John Aderhold, the chairman of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, a plan was created to build a new domed stadium and keep the Falcons in Atlanta.

A public-private financing plan was put together, but ultimately crumbled as the economy bottomed out in the fall of 1988. The private sector was struggling to hit its fundraising goal, and the city of Atlanta realized it couldn't finance any part of the construction. We were forced to find another way to get this project done.

That's when Atlanta agreed to try a new approach -- a penny hotel-motel tax increase that would be allocated for the Dome. The idea was that those who came into the city for the events at the Dome could help pay for the facility that drew them here. The city and state enthusiastically agreed, removing the private sector from the equation entirely.

Today, we have a better deal on the table.

The proposed new stadium would give us a state-of-the-art, modern facility that will be built in a public-private partnership that, when adjusted for inflation, includes a public investment that is less than what was put up for the Dome all those years ago. The private investment, about two-thirds of the total cost, will total approximately $700 million. In addition, the private sector -- namely the Falcons -- will shoulder the risks of stadium construction cost overruns, as well as stadium operations and capital expenditures risks. This relieves Georgia of the risks it currently incurs at the Dome.

Based on the Georgia Dome's track record, the return on the state's investment in a new stadium will be more than significant.

There is no doubt the Georgia Dome has proved its worth. Our focus now is on whether we will continue to be recognized as the sports capital of the South and a premier tourist destination. Is it worth a $300 million investment for a $1 billion dollar asset that will be owned by the state and publically funded by a hotel-motel tax that is paid for by tourists, not residents?

I say "yes." The time has come to cast an eye to the future. This is a great deal for all of Georgia, and we can't afford to pass it up.

Zell Miller, the 79th governor of Georgia, served in the U.S. Senate from 2000 through 2005.

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