Groundbreaking for Falcons stadium puts focus on future

The Falcons new retractable-roof facility, which is slated to open in 2017, is expected to carry a price tag of at least $1.2 billion.

John Amis/AP

ATLANTA — The hard hats and the shovels did not come out until the end.

When they did, they sparkled like almost everything else on Monday at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium.

The ground already has been broken for the new facility, which will replace the Georgia Dome in 2017, so Monday’s event served more as a victory lap and pep rally for the business and civic leaders who were responsible for forging the deals that will lead to the construction of the retractable-roof facility, whose price tag is expected to reach at least $1.2 billion.

Even the site itself proved ceremonial on Monday. Instead of holding the event at the actual construction site, organizers held it on Falcons plaza, the small grassy area located between the Georgia Dome, Philips Arena and the Georgia World Congress Center. VIPs sipped from champagne and ate hors d’oeuvres beneath a tent.

"I always like to say, leave it up to Arthur Blank to have the first groundbreaking in prime time," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell quipped of the Falcons’ owner.

The speakers included Goodell, Blank, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. They spoke of how the new stadium would be an economic driver for the city.

"Stadiums are not just bricks and mortar and not just a place to play," Goodell said. "They’re our stage. They critically important to the NFL experience and something we always work to improve on."

Reed said the stadium would be one of Atlanta’s "next iconic landmarks."

Reed spoke of how the stadium would create jobs and how Blank would spend $50 million on infrastructure in the areas around the stadium and $50 million on philanthropy in the neighborhoods that surround the stadium. He also said Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority, would spend $15 million to match.

Reed referenced the College Football Hall of Fame, which is being built adjacent to the World Congress Center on Marietta Street, and said that "we intend to make Atlanta American’s football capital."

When the stadium first opens, it will host MLS games before it hosts NFL games. Last month, Blank was awarded an expansion franchise, which will begin playing in March 2017. Garber was said the franchise already has commitments for 11,000 season tickets.

"We think that really speaks to what is going to happen when this team hits the ground and plays in this brand new stadium," he said. Then he added that while the stadium will be configured for a capacity of 29,000 for soccer, he hopes to have a record-breaking 71,000 for the inaugural match.

The leaders spoke of grandiose plans for the stadium. In addition to continuing to host the SEC football championship game, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four and a semifinal every third year over the first six years of the new College Football Playoff, they also spoke of the opportunity to host a national title game, international friendly soccer matches and possibly even FIFA World Cup games in 2026.

Of keen interest is when the new stadium might host its first Super Bowl. Atlanta has not hosted one of the games since 2000 when ice storms hit the city. On a gorgeous spring night, Blank joked to his visitors from the NFL, who are in town for their annual spring meeting on Tuesday, that this is how the weather always is.

Then he implored the media to besiege Goodell to inquire when the city will in fact get the game. A stadium must be open for two years before it is eligible, making 2019 the first year when the new stadium could host the Super Bowl.

Blank said his family foundation will be "a catalyst for sustained real change" in the neighborhoods that surround the stadium and that he wants to help make a difference in the lives of the people who live in those neighborhoods.

After the speech making had concluded, visitors were treated to a 3D computer-generated imagery film in which a falcon flew over the city, then closer in towards the new stadium, all around it and then inside of it. As the film played and viewers got to see those multi-dimensional renderings of the facility, fireworks exploded, lasers lit up the night sky and flames powerful enough to singe the eyebrows of Goodell and Garber, who had front-row seats, blew skyward.

When the smoke had cleared, Blank, Goodell, Garber, Reed and others put on their shiny silver hard hats and grabbed matching shovels. From a box of dirt, they dug in and threw the dirt.

As they did, more fireworks exploded above them.