(Photo: Screengrab/WXIA-TV Atlanta, Ga.)
Two historic black churches in Atlanta, Ga., sit in the path of a proposed site for the new Atlanta Falcons stadium that is scheduled to open in 2017 to compete with more modern football stadiums, such as Cowboy Stadium in Arlington and Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.
Building the $1 billion stadium just south of the Georgia Dome would require Mt. Vernon Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church, which predates the end of the Civil War and has stood at its present location since 1880, to move their congregations from their historic locations for the sake of football.
Although the churches have received offers of $15.7 million (FBC) and $1.4 million (Mt. Vernon) to relocate, some members are opposed to the city's plans that put entertainment ahead of worship and the services the churches provide to the local community.
"I think going to church is more important than having a stadium personally," said Tracy Coakley to WXIA-TV. "I like football, we have athletes in our family, but I like my church more."
Lloyd Hawk, chairman of the board of trustees for Friendship Baptist Church, told the local news station that "the congregation will, at some point, sit down and hold what we call a church conference, and that would be the opportunity for the congregation to discuss and make a decision as to what our official position will be."
Even though the location in which the churches sit is the preferred location for the new Georgia Dome, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has said from the outset that if the two historical churches decided not to move, then the city will build the new stadium just north of the current dome.
"Just as the mayor has stated, no one is interested in forcing the churches to move," Kim Shreckengost, executive vice president of the AMB group, the parent company of the Atlanta Falcons, said to The Christian Post on Tuesday. "If a solution that makes everyone comfortable cannot be reached, the new stadium will move to a site north of the Georgia Dome."
The Atlanta City Council, the Georgia World Congress Center and Invest Atlanta have voted to approve the new stadium, and the city is now in negotiations with the churches to reach a final decision.
Although the Falcons will pay about $800 million for the stadium, William Perry of Common Cause Georgia, a nonpartisan government watchdog, believes the public has been kept in the dark about the real cost of the stadium.
The city's website states that the remaining $200 million to pay for the stadium will come from the city's hotel-motel tax, but the cost to the city has recently increased to $400 million to pay for maintenance and the cost of hosting future events, such as concerts and national political conventions.
Perry of Common Cause also expressed concerns about the lack of open public debate about the new stadium.
"Why would you ask for the public's opinion after a vote has been taken? It's almost as if you're sending the message that you don't care," Perry of Common Cause told local news stations.
Shreckengost also told CP that local neighborhoods would benefit if the stadium is relocated to the site where the two churches now stand.
"The Arthur M. Blank (owner of the Falcons) Family Foundation has committed $15 million to benefit the neighborhoods contiguous to the new stadium," she said. "The funds are expected to be granted to transformational projects that result in lasting impact. Invest Atlanta will also commit $15 million from the Westside Tax Allocation District to co-investments in these neighborhoods. It's anticipated that planned uses of TAD funds will leverage additional public and private funds."
Critics have also raised concerns that members of the Georgia World Congress and Invest Atlanta, two entities that had to approve the new stadium before the city council's final vote, will have the use of a stadium suite and 20 extra seats at no cost, as well as access to tickets to Super Bowl games, in any city that hosts the event.
The Georgia World Congress Center and the Atlanta Falcons just selected an architect on April 17 to design the new stadium, not yet knowing where its new home will be. The current Georgia Dome will be demolished when the new stadium is built.
The Christian Post contacted both Friendship Baptist Church and Mt. Vernon Baptist Church for comment, but neither was available to respond at time of publication.