Mercedes-Benz Stadium is likely to add momentum to an already improving downtown, but how much push it will provide is a matter of debate among Atlanta’s business and political leaders.
As flashy, costly and imposing as it is, the stadium replaces another facility — the Georgia Dome — so by itself it probably won’t reshape downtown, experts say. But the $1.5 billion home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United is expected to draw millions of visitors, who will continue to bring economic energy to the rapidly changing core of the city.
Downtown is booming unlike any time since the 1996 Summer Olympic Games — with billions in new development underway or on the drawing board. New apartments are going up near Centennial Olympic Park. After the Georgia Dome is razed, the Georgia World Congress Center plans a luxury hotel and a new park space. The Hawks and partners could build a new mixed-use project near Philips Arena.
“We feel as if everything is coming together,” said Wilma Sothern, vice president of downtown business group Central Atlanta Progress. “This is a great new asset for our community and our city.”
The Atlanta Braves and Falcons each built new facilities with the public picking up much of the tabs, while the city is also ponying up big money for the refresh of Philips Arena.
Public financing of stadiums has come under fire for years as being a drain on public coffers and not fulfilling promises for jobs and economic revitalization.
“It’s hard to make a case for there being any economic benefit for replacing an old stadium with a new stadium,” said J.C. Bradbury, a Kennesaw State University economist who studies sports venues.
The stadium will be home to the Atlanta United, the city’s new Major League Soccer franchise, which will add 17 home matches in the new building each season. The stadium hopes to draw international soccer exhibitions, the World Cup and concerts.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium also will play host to the Super Bowl in 2019, the upcoming college football national championship game and the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2020.
But large events such as a Super Bowl aren’t the economic drivers boosters claim they are, Bradbury said, and often displace business such as conventions that would have already used the hotel rooms and filled restaurants in any normal week.
However, some area business leaders say they can already see a positive impact from the stadium and expect to see more.
‘There are no minuses’
Less than a mile from the facility, Bruce Teilhaber, owner of Friedman’s Shoes on Mitchell Street, said the stadium is bringing more people to the area, many of them likely to park from some distance or come by MARTA.
Anything that adds to foot traffic is good for businesses, he said.
Also, a new development group has taken over Underground Atlanta with plans for apartments and retail shops. A German group, Newport US, has acquired dozens of downtown buildings with plans to rehab them, turning the aging structures into refreshed retail, office space and residences.
“There are no minuses,” said Teilhaber. “I just don’t see any.”
His son, Brett Teilhaber, echoed the hope that the stadium is part of a long-coming change to downtown Atlanta.
“We have all the hotels we need in downtown, but there’s not that big city vibe — like in Nashville. If the city does it right, if Newport does what it says it is going to do, we can have that here. We can have that lit-up feel.”
One person watching and investing in downtown is developer Joel Roth.
He purchased Fulton Supply Company on Nelson Street in 1987 and he also owns some parking lots near the new stadium.
“Back in the ’80s the area was dead,” he said. “If you walked out after five at night or the weekends it was dead. Plus there was a lot of petty crime.”
After the Olympics, things started to change. Castleberry Hill, a neighborhood near the stadium, emerged as a hub for the arts, with new galleries, restaurants and condos.
The movie industry found Castleberry Hill, too, and over the years about a dozen other film and television projects filmed at Fulton Supply.
Sensing a wave of new residents downtown, Roth moved the supply business to Stone Mountain and decided to redevelop the building into apartments.
The new Falcons stadium, he said, was a big part of that decision.
“I always felt that part of downtown was a sleeper that was going to come alive,” Roth said.
He’s ready to double down, with plans for a six-story building with offices and residences that he hopes will have a ground breaking in 12 to 24 months.
Lift to neighborhoods
On a recent Saturday, Steve Saenz led a few dozen people who trekked through downtown to see the stadium, a broad swath of south downtown where a German group plans to redevelop dozens of aging buildings and Underground Atlanta. Saenz started a group called Urban Explorers Atlanta, a social club that tours the city on foot and bike.
“The trend of what is happening with the growth of this city is what makes the development of downtown different this time,” Saenz said. “Downtown [growth] isn’t Beltline-driven, but frankly I don’t think it is stadium-driven. I think this redevelopment would be happening on its own.”
Estimates predict some 2.5 million people are expected to move into the metro Atlanta area by 2040. They’ll have to live somewhere, and many will choose to live in the city, he said.
Perhaps the biggest lift the Falcons stadium will provide, he said, is the momentum to revitalize Westside neighborhoods and build Rodney Cook Sr. Park, a new park similar to the Historic Fourth Ward Park along the Eastside Beltline Trail. That park helped solve some of the flooding problems there, much as its twin will on the Westside.
“I think that will lift those neighborhoods,” he said.
Kyle Kessler, an architect who lives downtown, said he hopes the optimism is justified.
“It is surely not for everyone – many people do want to drive up, attend an event, then drive away – but there seems to be a growing desire for an ‘urban’ experience,” Kessler said. “A lot of people want to hang out with friends, get something to eat, to drink, find other activities.”
Still, he is a little skeptical about how much the new stadium has actually changed the equation.
“Unfortunately, there is nothing immediately adjacent to the new Mercedes-Falcons Stadium and the question is, will we fill it in?” he said. “I do think we are going to see some different effects than with the Dome, but it’s unclear how different it will be.”