I sure hope you enjoyed yesterday’s calculation that the Atlanta Falcons stadium deal, after hidden lease subsidies, would cost taxpayers $554 million — because the Atlanta city council sure showed no interest at all, voting 11-4 last night to approve the project to replace the 20-year-old Georgia Dome with a new stadium, with the help of a 30-year extension of hotel-motel taxes. “The council, in a short amount of time, significantly improved the transaction from what was initially presented to us,” council member Yolanda Adrean said afterwards, which is true only if you count a $15 million team contribution to “community improvements” to be significant in the context of a $554 million public subsidy.
Also not interested in hidden cost numbers: The Associated Press, which jumped out of the gate last night to be the first to report on the deal, describing it as “using city hotel-motel tax revenue to cover the $200 million public contribution for the proposed $1 billion, retractable roof stadium.” At least the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to its credit, described the public share as “the use of city hotel-motel taxes to pay $200 million toward construction costs and potentially several times that toward costs of financing, maintaining and operating the stadium through 2050.”
There’s still a vote to come from Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, later today, but despite one board member’s public skepticism, it’s hard to see them defying the mayor and the council on this one. So it looks as though the Falcons will be playing in a new stadium circa 2017, and the Georgia Dome, built at a public cost of $214 million in 1992 and renovated for another $300 million in 2007, won’t live to see its 25th birthday.
While the writing’s seemed on the wall for this one for awhile, it’s still a pretty stunning development when you step back and look at it: An NFL team in a relatively new domed football stadium, without threatening to leave town aside from a few vague idle threats to go to the suburbs, succeeded in getting the local government to approve more than half a billion dollars’ worth of future tax subsidies by means of a bait-and-switch in which they first claimed they were asking for $300 million, then changing the number to $200 million, all while the actual subsidy figures remained unchanged. Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s a bravura performance of chutzpah, a horrible precedent for other cities facing their own stadium shakedowns, or both.
Plus, you just know that “But the Falcons are getting a whole new stadium!” is likely to be the next rallying cry in Charlotte and Miami, as backers of the wildly unpopular plans to subsidize stadium upgrades for the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins try to jump-start those deals. Suffice to say that the next reporter to call me and ask if the days of major stadium subsidies are behind us will be getting an earful.