[MLS EXPANSION] Major League Soccer is set to unveil Atlanta as its 22nd club as Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, among others, will be on hand at Ventanas Wednesday afternoon for what has been described as a "major announcement." Unlike David Beckham's Miami team, whose launch is contingent on winning approval for a downtown soccer stadium, a plan is in place for a new Atlanta stadium. Here's what we know about the stadium.
-- The new stadium, scheduled to open in 2017, will replace the Georgia Dome, which only opened in 1992. The Falcons currently play in the Georgia Dome, owned by the same state stadium authority that will own the new downtown stadium, but Blank, who bought the Falcons in 2002, deemed the Georgia Dome unsuitable for remodeling.
-- The stadium will cost $1.2 billion and be paid for by stadium bonds issued by the Atlanta Development Authority and repaid by the city of Atlanta through a portion of revenues it receives from a hotel tax. A portion of those revenues will also be set aside each year to operate the stadium.
-- The Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which owns the Georgia Dome, will own the new stadium, though Falcons will run the stadium and keep the revenue in return for an annual rent of $2.5 million.
-- The financing plan for the stadium passed 11-4 in March 2013. Unable or unwilling to secure a stadium deal from Atlanta, the baseball Braves stunned civic leaders by announcing plans to move to suburban Cobb County after the 2016 season when their lease expires at Turner Field, where they've only played since 1997 after their move from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium at which the old soccer Chiefs played and plans to save pro soccer were hatched by the late Phil Woosnam andClive Toye after the NASL's near-collapse in 1968.
Criticism of the new stadium centers on its location in two predominantly black neighborhoods, Vine City and English Avenue. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. brought his family to live there in 1967, and a street named after him will become a dead-end for stadium VIP parking. Plans call for the demolition of Atlanta’s first black Baptist church. A challenge by community leaders to the stadium project was heard last week in Fulton County Superior Court. It regards the bond measure, which as a matter of state law requires court review and approval.
The stadium will hold 71,000 seats for the Falcons, less for soccer. Blank says drapes will be placed around the stadium to create a more intimate atmosphere for soccer. Such draping is used at Vancouver's B.C. Place for Whitecap games. Like B.C. Place, the new Atlanta stadium will have a retractable roof. In October 2013, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the new stadium will have artificial turf instead of natural grass.
Of all the MLS expansion projects in the last decade, Atlanta's has received the most criticism. Much of it concerns the move into an NFL stadium, where MLS games will be played on turf and soccer won't be the primary tenant. There is also the fear that MLS is putting the cart before the horse, moving into a city where soccer does not have a history of success. (In five of their 10 seasons, the Chiefs averaged less than 5,000 a game.) And as Jason Davis noted last week at U.S. National Soccer Players web site, "The bar set by recent expansion success has spoiled American soccer fans."
But as other teams struggle with soccer stadium projects becoming embroiled in urban politics -- New York City FC may be stuck in Yankee Stadium for three years and face all kinds of problems sharing a baseball stadium, while D.C. United and Beckham's Miami group also face numerous obstacles -- a clean stadium deal seems too good to pass up when it is backed by an owner like Blank -- the Home Depot co-founder -- willing to invest heavily and enthusiastically in soccer.