God and football collide in Atlanta, and 'progress' wins out

Yahoo Sports

ATLANTA – The urban legend around Atlanta is that General Sherman's Civil War torches paved the way for the modern metropolis the city is today. It's a convenient damn-Yankees theory, but the truth is that the city's own aspirations have leveled more buildings than Sherman ever did.

The latest examples sit in the shadow of the Georgia Dome, the 20-year-old home of the Atlanta Falcons: two churches with connections to Atlanta's history. Two churches with more than a century's worth of claim to the land around the Dome. Two churches that stood in the way of a new stadium, but as a result of $34 million in buyouts approved this week, don't block progress any longer.

In the battle between history and progress in Atlanta, progress is on a 150-year winning streak.

Atlanta became the city it is today on a foundation of stadiums. In 1964, then-mayor Ivan Allen Jr. spearheaded the construction the now-demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, declaring it "one of the greatest stimulants, one of the greatest inspirations, that this city and state has ever had." He used it to lure the Braves from Milwaukee, and soon afterward the Falcons sputtered into existence. The Georgia Dome, built in 1992, and Turner Field, built in 1996, hosted events at the 1996 Olympic Games.

At the time of its construction (which required the demolition of 11 churches), the Georgia Dome was the largest domed structure in the world. But time marches on, construction schemes get grander, and now the Dome is the equivalent of an old-but-not-quite-classic car. It's still perfectly serviceable, of course, but if Atlanta expects to lure another Super Bowl, it'll have to do so in sleeker digs.

The Falcons put out the call for prospective new stadium designs, and if the one that the team backs actually comes to fruition, it'll be an architectural marvel. Current plans call for a center "oculus" to spiral open and close above the playing surface, and in-stadium amenities will rival or exceed that of any other facility on the planet. Truly, this could be Atlanta's next great landmark.

[Slideshow: Atlanta Falcons new stadium proposal]

However, gargantuan stadiums require land. Lots of land. Land preferably with few tenants requiring relocation. The Falcons believed they'd found the perfect property just south of their current location, one with few infrastructure problems and no large buildings to displace. The only problem: two churches, Mount Vernon Baptist and Friendship Baptist, sit within the footprint of the proposed new stadium.

Stadiums always require demolition, of course; there's little open land anywhere near any metropolitan center anymore. But knocking down a church for a football team carries symbolic weight, especially in the South, which worships both in virtually equal measure. Factor in the fact that Friendship dates to the Reconstruction and hosted in its basement the initial meetings of what would become Morehouse College, and you've got the makings of a full-on collision of history and progress, with faith and football thrown in for good measure.

"The new stadium project is a model public-private partnership built upon a spirit of cooperation and collaboration," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a July statement. "We want this project to go down in the history books as an example of an economic development vehicle that creates a win for all parties involved, including Friendship Baptist Church, Mt. Vernon Baptist Church and the surrounding communities."

"You're going to disrupt two churches, two houses of worship and prayer, for someone to play ball?" Juanita Abernathy, widow of civil rights activist Ralph David Abernathy, said in April. "It doesn't make sense."

The game was afoot.

Relocating the stadium presented the Falcons with a pick-your-poison bureaucratic nightmare. Once the team decided to build in close proximity to the Dome, two sites – one north of the Dome and one south – stood out above all others.

The more industrial north site would require the relocation of utilities, and the Falcons faced strong opposition from residents. The south site didn't have the same level of grass-roots protest, but it did have those churches.

"The initial reaction, the emotional response [to a buyout] was 'No,' " said Lloyd Hawk, president of Friendship's Board of Trustees. "But as we talked to the congregation, we realized there were three distinct areas we needed to be aware of. First, there's the emotional/spiritual aspect. Next, there's the pure business aspect. Finally, the programmatic aspect. How would this impact our ability to continue our missions and our outreach?"

Because the two churches sit on opposite sides of Martin Luther King Boulevard and the land will be used for two separate purposes, two separate agencies, the state of Georgia and the Georgia World Congress Center, handled the separate negotiations. Each church eyed the other, gauging the other's progress in negotiations, neither wanting to settle too early or miss out on a potential windfall.

Hawk noted that the need to find and develop an alternative site for his church complicated the decision. "It's not as simple as it might look from the outside," he said. "It's not just a matter of here's a number, here's a number, let's meet in the middle. We have to do what's right for our community. If they offered us $50 million dollars but we would have to move out to the suburbs – as a banker, it would hurt to turn my back on $50 million, but we'd have to do that."

The churches also pursued different media strategies. While Friendship opened its doors to media, offering up sound bites of hope even when negotiations sputtered to a halt in August, Mount Vernon closed ranks, declining comment throughout the entire process.

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Friendship reached an agreement to sell for $19.5 million in mid-summer, but Mount Vernon remained staunch in its refusal to accept a payment of $6.2 million, which the GWCC determined was the fair market value for the land. Instead, the church sought $20.4 million. In early August, despite entreaties from the city and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the Falcons threw down the gauntlet: There would be no more negotiation with the churches. The window on the south site had closed.

Turns out, though, that was a play-fake that nobody really bought. Negotiations continued, with the city of Atlanta stepping in and ponying up some cash to help grease the wheels. And thus, the churches agreed to the buyout, with Mount Vernon accepting $14.5 million and Friendship accepting $19.5 million.

It may not have been a Hail Mary pass, but it was awfully close.

The new stadium is thus back on track to open in time for the 2017 season. By that time the church buildings will be long gone, the congregations presumably set up in new locations close by. Though it should be noted that, according to Hawk, of the 11 churches demolished in the construction of the Georgia Dome, only six continued.

Did the Falcons take advantage of the churches? You could argue that. You could also argue that the churches fleeced the Falcons and the city of Atlanta; there's no way on God's green earth that those churches would have earned such sums had it been, say, a Wal-Mart looking to set up shop. With their new millions, and some wise real estate investment, the churches could come out just fine in this arrangement.

"We weren't going to make a decision based on what a football team needed," Hawk said on Sunday. "And quite frankly that was the least of our concerns in the decision."

In the end, that's the real lesson of Atlanta: everyone who's paying attention can end up doing very well indeed, as long as you keep pushing forward and don't look back.

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