Charlie Harper: One more loss for Falcons?

January 22, 2013 

Hopefully this will be my last column about the proposed new stadium in downtown Atlanta, scheduled to replace the Georgia Dome in 2017. Late last week, the Governor reportedly called Falcons team owner Arthur Blank and team president Rich McKay in for a talk.

According to Lori Geary of WSB TV, the message sent was there is no appetite for a vote to raise the Georgia World Congress Center's borrowing authority above $200 million. The Falcons apparently have some time to think whether or not they can live with a deal that provides them $100 million less in public financing. The governor's public statement after the meeting says he still supports the $300 million package as is currently in the negotiated terms sheet but according to the station it is Blank who "must do the heavy lifting."

Reducing the contribution from the World Congress Center would avoid a legislative fight, as both the hotel-motel tax and the ability of the GWCC to borrow up to $200 million are already established law. So why continue discussing a stadium that mostly affects a relatively small portion of Georgians and whose tax proceeds are drawn mostly from out-of-towners? It's a matter of choices, priorities, and how Atlanta works with the region and the state in the future.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spent the weekend in Washington for the President's inaugural. On Saturday, he sat with CNN for a bit and discussed the priorities of big city mayors and what they can expect from President Obama's second term. The one need he chose to highlight was infrastructure, and the need for funds to build and rebuild.

Infrastructure. The kind of investment that tends to pay long-term dividends for livability and growth if spent properly. Or the kind of projects that allow large sums of money to be squandered by leveraging tomorrow's tax dollars into bonds that can be spent today for projects whether they are needed or a trophy to someone else's agenda.

The region that can call itself "Atlanta" is roughly ten times the size of the city with the same name, with competing views on the needs of infrastructure and the desire and ability to pay for it. Regardless, most in the region understand that traffic is a main concern, and two decades of neglect have allowed an overly congested system to become broken. Fixing it will be not be easy nor cheap.

The city of Atlanta sees part of the solution as a Beltline to support infill development, and allow people to live closer to where they work and shop. The inner part of the region already has MARTA, but understands that this system too is in need of an overhaul to meet the mission with which it is charged.

The farther out from the city's core the needs of the residents change, as does their political affiliation. Residents in the exurbs of the region are loath to support anything that smells of transit, and frankly, want to cooperate with the city as little as possible.

And therein lies the problem. With half of Georgia's population centered in one large region, it is difficult to say that the traffic needs of an area aren't a state issue, including transit. When a large number of the regions' residents (and a larger number of the state's Republicans) side with those outside the region to block transit funding, the problem persists.

The Mayor himself, in pushing for last summer's T-SPLOST, continuously cited the city's convention business as why the Beltline and MARTA extension were critical infrastructure investments. The hotel motel tax comes directly off the top of this industry's revenue stream.

Yet when the tough choices about spending limited resources must be made, the mayor's direct quote is "I will not be the Atlanta mayor that loses the Falcons."

Supporters of the new stadium say this is a false choice, and that suburbanites won't support these transit projects anyway. This is a weak answer that pretends there is not a strong relationship between this mayor and this governor, who continues to back this project even if he won't provide the capital needed to sell it.

The money currently directed to the Georgia Dome and the money that the city is preparing for infrastructure improvements around the new stadium would be more than enough to build the Beltline when combined with federal matching funds. If the city were to show leadership in making that tough choice, it would be much easier for the mayor to go to the governor and ask for funding for commuter rail and possibly state involvement for MARTA to make it a true regional system.

That would be leadership. But that would require different choices. And priorities.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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