Fans begin to fill the Georgia Dome prior to a NCAA college football game between Auburn and Clemson in Atlanta Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012.
ATLANTA — After roughly two years of discussions, a plan for the Atlanta Falcons to build a new downtown stadium took the first of many key steps toward becoming a reality.
The Georgia World Congress Center Authority approved the framework for a deal to build a stadium with a retractable roof, replacing the 20-year-old Georgia Dome.
The authority's board members unanimously approved general terms of the proposed stadium in a special meeting Monday. A 24-page document outlines terms negotiated between Falcons representatives and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, including who would own the stadium and how it would be financed.
Officials are deciding whether the new stadium — which is estimated to cost about $1 billion — would be built on property north of the Georgia Dome, or on a lot south of the 71,250-seat arena.
Tim Lowe, chairman of the GWCCA board, said local lawmakers also have to vote on a financial underpinning of the proposal.
"Both the city of Atlanta and also the Fulton County Commission have to vote to approve use of the hotel-motel tax for this, so they will look at the deal and either say yes or no," Lowe said.
Officials Monday said they'll search for an architect while city and county officials discuss the deal. Frank Poe, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, said land costs, potential traffic congestion issues and the projected impacts on nearby neighborhoods will likely factor into the decision on where the new stadium would be built.
William Perry, of Georgia Common Cause, a nonprofit, non-partisan citizen advocacy group, said the public thus far has not been given enough opportunities to weigh in.
"It just seems like there needs to be more dialogue about what the public wants in this whole deal," Perry said, "It just gives the appearance that this thing is sailing through like a rubber stamp." His organization has not taken a position on the proposal, which has already won support from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
"Mayor Reed has supported the plans for a new stadium and continues to do so. The tourism and convention industry pumps billions of dollars into the city every year, and best-in-class facilities are a vital component of Atlanta's offerings," Reed's spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs Dade said in an email. "Mayor Reed believes the agreement reached today between the Falcons and the GWCC is an important first step."
Officials said the Falcons will pay about 70 percent of the total cost, and revenue from the hotel-motel tax will count as the roughly 30 percent public contribution.
Under the proposed deal, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which is a state agency, will own the stadium. The Falcons will run the facility, and must agree to not relocate. The franchise will keep revenue generated from parking and operations, but will pay rent to occupy the stadium — which is expected to have a seating capacity of between 66,000 and 72,000.
Upon completion of the new stadium in 2017, the proposal also calls for demolishing the Georgia Dome — which hosted artistic gymnastics and basketball during the 1996 Olympic Games as well as NCAA basketball tournament games, soccer matches and rock concerts. The dome also hosted the 1994 and 2000 Super Bowls and will host the NCAA Final Four in April.
Poe said the authority has no contingency plan if city and county officials assail the proposal. Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons, said the franchise would explore plans to relocate within Atlanta or the metro area if the deal is not approved.
"We would probably go back and look at a solution that involves an outdoor stadium somewhere else. That would not be our desire, and we don't anticipate that," McKay said, "We've really put our eggs in this basket."
According to NFL.com, the Georgia Dome is the 10th-oldest out of the league's 32 stadiums. Falcons officials, GWCCA board members and city officials said a new stadium with a retractable roof could raise the city's profile in terms of hosting large-scale events.
"I think this stadium should be iconic unto itself, and should put Atlanta in a position where we can attract any event that we desire to attract," McKay said.
Falcons coach Mike Smith and his players have paid little attention to the stadium negotiations. The team is 11-2 and already has clinched a playoff spot by winning the NFC South.
"I don't concern myself with the stadium," Smith said. "I know that's something that's way down the timeline."
Offensive tackle Tyson Clabo chuckled when asked his opinion of the stadium proposal.
"Let me tell you a little secret about this new stadium," the 31-year-old Clabo said. "I'm going to be long gone by the time we play there."