Atlanta Stumbling Toward ’96 Olympics : Disputes: Delays threaten the $207-million stadium. Authorities are counting on the project to help rejuvenate depressed sections of the city.
The euphoria that greeted the announcement three years ago that Atlanta would host the 1996 Olympic Games has turned to nail-biting and bickering as local leaders thrash about in a pressure cooker of high finance and deadlines to prepare for the event.
Long delays in approving plans to build a new $207-million Olympic stadium threaten to scuttle the project. Olympic organizers announced this week that they will begin looking for sites to build a cheaper, more limited facility, perhaps in the suburbs.
That could mean that the opening and closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics could end up being held in some place like Marietta, Ga., or Smyrna.
More than Atlanta’s pride is at stake.
The proposed inner-city stadium, which the Atlanta Braves baseball team would inherit after 1996, is a cornerstone of the city’s plan to use the Games to rejuvenate depressed sections of the city. Without the stadium, Atlanta would lose an opportunity to spur redevelopment in the impoverished Summerhill community, on the southern edge of downtown.
In addition, city and county officials fear that unless they build a facility that makes the Braves happy, the baseball team may quit Atlanta for another city. A dispute with the Braves is causing the delay.
The team adds tens of millions of dollars to the city’s economy each year.
As Mayor Maynard Jackson warned this week, while urging Fulton County commissioners to approve the stadium plan, “There are 30 cities lined up to build (the Braves) a stadium for free and give it to them rent free for 40 years. . . . That’s the competition we face.”
With approval already more than a month over deadline, the latest delay came Wednesday at the hands of county commissioners, the last of three local government bodies that must approve stadium plans.
The commission tabled the plan for a week at an often-raucous six-hour meeting. Speaker after speaker criticized the stadium deal as unfair to taxpayers, or attacked it because of the disruption it will cause in Summerhill, the same neighborhood where families were displaced 20 years ago when the current Fulton County stadium was built and when interstate highways split the area.
The new track-and-field stadium would be built immediately south of the existing stadium, which would be demolished. It would be reconfigured after the Olympics to make it suitable for baseball.
Under consideration is a plan to reinvigorate the neighborhood by building townhouses, apartments, a park and a retail area on the blocks adjacent to the facility.
While neighborhood groups welcome the attention to their drug-plagued, dilapidated community, they are up in arms because of a provision of the agreement that guarantees the Braves that 10,000 parking spaces will be set aside in the stadium’s immediate vicinity, possibly requiring the demolition of homes and other buildings.
In an effort to soothe their concerns, the city is promising to pursue efforts to build parking above interstate highways near the stadium.
Even while the mayor lobbies for approval of the stadium deal, he acknowledges that it is a far-from-perfect arrangement. It is important that the stadium be built in the city, though, Jackson says, because hosting the Olympics is a “once in a millennium opportunity.”
The stadium deal has been under increasing fire in recent weeks from critics who say it would saddle taxpayers with as much as $500 million in maintenance and repair costs over the next 40 years. Supporters of the plan dispute those figures.
The plan calls for the stadium to be built by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the organization set up to plan the Olympics and build its venues. After the Olympics, the Braves would pay rent for use of the stadium that would be jointly owned by Atlanta and Fulton County.
Even after Stan Kastan, president of the Braves, offered last-minute concessions, including an offer to limit public liability for maintaining the stadium to $100 million over the 40-year life of the contract, a four-member majority of the seven-member board of commissioners remained against it.
Commissioner Martin Luther King III, the usually reticent son of the slain civil rights leader, was the last member to announce his stand, opposing the stadium in a moving speech.
Noting that the organizing committee, seeking to portray Atlanta as a model of racial diversity, had invoked his father’s name when campaigning for the Olympics, King said, “Greed, exclusivity and elitism have become the symbols of Atlanta’s Olympic movement--all things that my father fought against--and they are all reflected in the deal proposed before us, the rich and affluent on one side, the poor and hopeless on the other side.”
Referring to the way Atlanta celebrated winning the Olympics, he said: “When the euphoria wore off and the deal-makers went into the back room, the symbols of love and sharing that we used to win the Olympics were placed back in the prop room and have been there collecting dust ever since.”
The alleged one-sidedness of the deal first loomed as a possible stumbling block last month when members of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority balked. They initially rejected the proposed $1.5-million annual rent payments the Braves would pay and demanded that the rent be tied to the rate of inflation. The authority and later the City Council approved the deal after Kastan offered concessions.
Commission Chairman Michael L. Lomax, who had lobbied hard for approval, has called for Braves owner Ted Turner to become personally involved in the negotiating process to help find a solution.