Arthur Blank: It was important for the Falcons to stay Downtown

The Atlanta philanthropist talked stadium, pro sports, and his pet causes during breakfast ”Conversation” panel

If the Buckhead crowd that packed Maggiano’s to hear editor-in-chief Steve Fennessy interview Arthur Blank at 7 a.m. this morning seemed a bit weary, it’s probably because many Falcons fans were up late last night watching the third episode of Hard Knocks, the HBO series that is currently documenting the NFL franchise’s preseason. When Fennessy referred to a few of Tuesday night’s highlights, Blank seemed amused by Levine Toilolo’s talent on the ukulele, though not so much by Matt Ryan’s locker room humor. Nevertheless, Blank is clearly a fan of the Emmy-winning reality show, noting, “We have a great story to tell, and we believe in transparency.”

Not surprisingly, Blank is confident about the upcoming season, citing recent roster changes and coach Mike Smith’s leadership. But the morning’s first ovation came when Fennessy thanked him for keeping the new stadium downtown. Why is that important to Blank? “It goes back to my roots. I’m a street kid,” he said. Having grown up in a New York apartment, he appreciates the vitality of urban environments—citing his support for the new Center for Civil and Human Rights, the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Atlanta BeltLine.

Fennessy noted that the Atlanta Braves didn’t seem to share his commitment, but Blank defended the baseball team’s decision to move. “I think the Braves did want to stay Downtown,” he said, suggesting that they ran out of time to negotiate a deal that was mutually beneficial for the team and the city. “It’s not like they’re moving to a different country,” he added. “When people think of Atlanta today, they don’t think of the city, they think of the region. The Braves will still be part of Atlanta. They’ll be in Cobb County, I understand that, but they will still be part of Atlanta.” Blank also believes that the Turner Field property presents a unique redevelopment opportunity south of the interstate.

Proceeds from the breakfast, which was part of Atlanta magazine’s ongoing “Conversations” series with civic leaders, went to Soccer in the Streets, at Blank’s request. This Atlanta-based nonprofit provides soccer opportunities for underserved youth. So, of course, attendees were interested to hear about Atlanta’s future Major League Soccer team. Blank noted that 14,000 fans have ponied up deposits for tickets, even though the team is more than two years away from its first game. “The MLS is shocked by that and thrilled,” he noted. Blank also stressed that the new stadium has been designed so that it can be configured for more intimate soccer matches as well as NFL games.

Of course, the talk wasn’t all sports. Blank managed to give shout outs to both mayor Reed and governor Deal. He also plugged some of his favorite causes, from Outward Bound and Westside Works (his foundation’s vocational training program for residents in the neighborhoods around the Dome) to Atlanta Public Schools.

Apparently, ambition and philanthropy were planted in Blank early on by his mother, Molly. At Fennessy’s request, he told a childhood story about burglars breaking into their apartment and tying up his family. While one robber searched their home for cash, Molly lectured the other about making poor life choices. Determination runs in the family, as she’s still going strong at age 99.