DeKalb Commission approves $12 million soccer stadium deal

Board boots its own hand-picked investigator, Mike Bowers, out of meeting in its rush to approve incentives
Atlanta United practice facility
Rendering courtesy of AUFC

Government-subsidized pro sports stadiums are more than a questionable idea; they’re a cliché of a questionable idea, as John Oliver’s viral rants on HBO have explained.

One would think that having former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers literally waiting in the wings to tell the DeKalb County Commission how riddled with corruption its county is—“rotten to the core” is how he put it in a letter this week to the county—might engender a sense of fiscal restraint in the board. Given the recent conviction of suspended CEO Burrell Ellis for trying to shake down a county vendor for campaign cash; lingering unresolved corruption complaints against other DeKalb officials; and intense investigations at the local, state, and federal level, appearances should matter.

Or not. At its public meeting Tuesday morning, the Commission kicked Bowers out of the hall. Then, commissioners voted 4-3 to hand Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank an estimated $12 million in incentives to build a training complex for his new Major League Soccer team, Atlanta United.

The posture of Lee May, interim county CEO, toward Bowers’ investigation seems to have shifted since he enlisted the veteran prosecutor in March. Five months ago, May presented Bowers’ arrival like Elliot Ness come to clean house. The presence of an outside investigator, disconnected to local politics, suggested a no-holds-barred approach. The price tag seemed startling of course—$500,000 or so, billed in chunks of $400 or so an hour—but conceding to a culture of corruption would be more expensive.

But county commissioners haven’t cooperated with the inquiry. Two weeks ago, the commission effectively voted to shut down the investigation by stripping funding from the budget.

Facing Bowers’ complaints, May shot off a note Wednesday to say he “wholeheartedly disagree(s) with the opinion that DeKalb County is rotten to the core,” and that “it appears the only thing we have to show for (the investigation) is a two-page letter full of salacious—but vague—innuendo.”

Bowers is refusing comment, at least until his report describing county employees’ profligate thefts of government funds—from jelly beans to cruises on the county dime—goes public on October 6.

The fuse on the bomb is burning, but DeKalb commissioners appeared unconcerned when they announced the terms of the stadium deal last Wednesday. They held the special-called meeting six days later, denying public comment from the floor. Because why would public objections matter? Surely a county commission with this track record could be trusted to decide—without tiresome public input—whether to spend half of this year’s county budget surpluson a stadium, right?

Under the deal, Blank gets use of the land tax-free for 30 years and the team pockets any ticket revenue. The deal obligates the county to remediate the land for development and to pay Blank $7 million to house its parks department in a 6,000-square-foot facility that critics say shouldn’t cost more than $1 million to build. In return, the county receives only vague promises for using the sports fields when Blank doesn’t need it.

The land for the soccer complex, behind the county jail on Memorial Drive near the Kensington MARTA Station, today is a sea of parking lot asphalt looking onto a half-demolished apartment complex.

Reversing decline on Memorial Drive is cited by proponents as a rationale for the extravagant deal. But Commissioner Kathy Gannon cited Coolray Field in Gwinnett County as a cautionary tale when explaining her no vote. Gwinnett officials blew millions building a new stadium using public bonds, only to be stuck holding the bag for a massive loss when parking revenue and ticket sales fell sharply below expectations. And promises of nearby economic development never materialized.

But May has argued that the stadium would be the largest economic development investment in South DeKalb in decades, noting how millions in county money had been spent in mostly white north DeKalb to preserve land from development.

Also noteworthy is the racial split over the Blank deal. All four commissioners who supported the deal are black. The three voting nay are white. It might be too early to describe the commission as racially divided, but a pattern seems to be emerging. On high-profile decisions—from appointing board members to large spending decisions like the controversial purchase of a YMCA building—board votes have split along racial lines, even though both Kathy Gannon and Jeff Rader are progressive white Democrats. The stadium vote is the first major issue with a fully constituted board in about two years, now that Mereda Johnson has been seated in the southeast DeKalb district. Black commissioners outnumber white commissioners now. And all four voted together to quash public comment.

Welcome to the post-Burrell era!