Community plan for new Falcons stadium takes shape

As $1 billion sports complex becomes more of a reality, Blank plans to help boost surrounding communities

As new stadium becomes more of a reality, Falcons owner Arthur Blank plans to help boost surrounding communities

The woes afflicting Vine City and English Avenue are well-documented. Open drug dealing. Vacant and abandoned properties. High dropout rates. Homelessness. The list goes on.

While the state and the Atlanta Falcons quickly work to iron out differences over a new stadium, team owner Arthur Blank's eponymous philanthropic foundation says it plans to invest in English Avenue, Vine City, and other neighborhoods that will be affected by the new sports complex.

"Arthur has said publicly — and he's emphasized to us both at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and at the Falcons — that his big-picture vision for the stadium is not to have a fabulous iconic structure on one side of Northside Drive and an impoverished neighborhood on the other side," Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation President Penny McPhee tells CL. "Part of its mission is to use the momentum and the energy of the stadium as a catalyst to do things that will benefit downtown and the surrounding communities."

How the foundation plans to do that won't be by building new schools and health-care centers. Or new housing — something the neighborhoods have plenty of, although a good percentage is vacant. At least not yet.

Over the last few months, McPhee says, the foundation has listened to community leaders, including members of its reconstituted board, about what kinds of improvements the neighborhoods need. Residents have urged a focus on investing in "human capital" — programs that help students stay in school, learn job skills, and start a business — rather than the built environment.

In the coming weeks, the foundation plans to work with Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development arm, and the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, a City Hall service that helps train workers, to potentially create a program that would prepare area residents with the skills and tips to compete for the estimated 4,500 jobs expected to be created by the stadium's construction.

"We want to be in a position now starting sooner rather than later to develop a pipeline of potential employees from the resident base of nearby communities," she says. "That'll require more than just job training. It's getting residents ready for job training, and then the appropriate conversations that line people up with actual jobs."

The foundation will also look at giving grants to other organizations to run after-school and educational programs, in addition to other initiatives, as it's done in the area in the past. But doing so will require a larger vision, which the foundation will craft over the next six months by sitting down with community leaders.

"What we want to try to avoid is just snowflaking grants to a lot of organizations that don't add up to anything," she says. "We want to be sure money is invested in a way that has long-term impact, be sustainable, and make a real difference for those communities. It's not going to be $3,000 to this group and $5,000 to this group without a coherent vision."

The foundation's work will only be one part of the puzzle. Invest Atlanta is currently looking at the myriad plans that have been drafted for the area over the years and possibly how to best invest leftover cash from the Westside Tax Allocation District, a financial tool that offers incentives to entice development in blighted areas. The Atlanta University Center and Atlanta Housing Authority are also focusing efforts in the neighborhoods. Mayor Kasim Reed has hinted that major upgrades to the area's infrastructure — road and streetscape fixes, for example — could indirectly benefit the neighborhoods.

The actual design of the stadium will also play a role. Currently, Vine City and English Avenue are sequestered from the prosperity blossoming in Midtown and downtown partly because the Georgia Dome and Georgia World Congress Center, which includes an exhibition hall that's twice as long as Atlanta's tallest skyscraper, both act as a barrier between the areas. The new facility could serve some public uses on non-game days, although that's merely an idea and depends on the stadium design and location. Officials have not yet determined whether the facility will be located either north or south of the Dome. The stadium, which the Falcons would like to open in 2017, is expected to cost more than $1 billion, approximately $300 million of which would come from a hotel/motel tax.

McPhee, who says Blank hasn't set a dollar figure for how much he'll invest in the area, hopes other organizations will also contribute to the effort. She acknowledges, however, that the stadium won't solve all the communities' woes.

"We know that, in and of itself, building a fabulous new stadium isn't going to transform English Avenue and Vine City and we know we need to be intentional about that," she says. "The energy can serve as a catalyst but we have to be intentional about making a difference for the people who live in those communities."

Greg Hawthorne of the Vine City Health and Housing Ministry, a nonprofit that strives to revitalize the neighborhood, says a group of neighborhood leaders, nonprofit developers, and residents have formed a coalition to hold discussions with the foundation. He says the community is anxious to sit at the table with the foundation, and agrees that the neighborhood needs solutions "focused on the people, properties, and the economy in the neighborhood, rather than just houses."

"The people in our neighborhood have been broken for so long," Hawthorne says. "We're ready to rise. We're ready to take advantage of the challenge. Our properties are blighted. And our economy is one of the lowest in the state. It's a shame that the No. 2 economic generator for the state of Georgia sits less than 100 feet from one of the neighborhoods with the highest crime and blight."