- Associated Press - Friday, July 24, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - The Atlanta Hawks are exploring three options for upgrading their home court, including renovating Philips Arena or building on the Civic Center site, Mayor Kasim Reed said on Thursday.

The team is also eyeing another location within city limits, Reed said, declining to give more specifics.

The news comes just weeks after the Hawks’ new principal owner, billionaire Tony Ressler, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the 16-year-old Philips Arena would need to be remodeled or replaced.

Reed said Thursday he met once with the team’s new owners and repeated his willingness to consider a deal involving the use of public funds - an option he brought up last year.

“What I’m willing to do is come to the table with a plan that makes sense and is fair to the people of Atlanta,” Reed told reporters. “I’m not closed to participating in a reasonable plan to make sure that the Hawks remain in the city and that’s what I expressed in our meeting.”



It would be the latest major stadium project for Reed, who led the charge for the city to help finance the future $1.4 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium downtown. Reed has also experienced the stinging loss of two professional sports teams from city limits - the Braves for Cobb County and the Thrashers for Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin wouldn’t comment on specific locations Thursday, but said the team’s new ownership “has looked at many sites in and around Atlanta and is working with the mayor on finding the right solution for the team in the city.”

Asked if the Hawks expect public funds to be involved in renovating Philips Arena or building a new arena, Koonin said: “We want to have a comprehensive public-private plan that involves resources coming from multiple parties.”

Discussion of a new or renovated arena for the Hawks comes at the same time that two other Atlanta pro sports franchises, the Falcons and the Braves, have new stadiums under construction. Both stadiums are being built with the assistance of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money.

Some $200 million from bonds backed by Atlanta hotel-motel tax revenue is going toward construction of the Falcons stadium downtown. Hundreds of millions in additional hotel-motel tax money will go toward maintaining, operating and financing the stadium over 30 years, the exact amount depending on tax collections.

Meanwhile, Cobb County has committed to issuing bonds of up to $397 million toward construction of the Braves’ new $672 million stadium near Cumberland Mall. Cobb also is on the hook for $35 million in maintenance costs over 30 years.

Both the Falcons’ and Braves’ new stadiums are slated to open in 2017, replacing venues that opened in the 1990s. The Georgia Dome is currently 23 years old and Turner Field 18 years old.

Philips Arena is even younger, having opened in 1999.

Ressler, a Los Angeles-based billionaire who made his fortune in the investment business, said in an interview with the AJC last month that Philips “is not a top-quartile arena in America, in the NBA.”

Ressler, who leads a 15-person group that completed its purchase of the Hawks on June 24, told the AJC a day after the sale that it was “too soon to say” whether the team will stay downtown.

In the same interview, he outlined how he viewed the team’s arena options, noting no timetable has been set for decisions.

“There’s do-nothing. There’s remodel. Or there’s a new arena,” Ressler said. “Do-nothing is not an option.”

If the paths of the other local stadiums are any indication, the nascent plans could meet with opposition should they involve the use of taxpayer dollars - an issue that’s receiving increasing scrutiny nationwide. President Barack Obama has proposed ending the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds for sports stadiums.

In both Atlanta and Cobb, residents challenged the use of bonds backed by public funds for stadium construction. Both legal challenges, however, failed during appeal at the Georgia Supreme Court.

Midtown resident Nick Wolaver was exasperated by the thought of another new publicly funded sports facility in Atlanta. He said he would support renovating Philips, but said he hopes talks don’t lead to building a brand new arena.

“I think that it is ridiculous that there is even a discussion about replacing Philips Arena. That venue continues to serve its purpose,” he told the AJC. “I think, cosmetically, any building that is 16 years old could use touch-ups, but there’s no reason to demolish it and replace it and spend all that money.”

The Hawks team has a strong financial incentive to stay put at Philips Arena, which is owned by the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority and operated by the team. The team’s lease requires them to play in Philips until about $124 million in bonds - refinanced in 2010 - are paid off, approximately in December 2028.

Should the team leave before 2017, it could be slapped with a $75 million penalty.

It’s unclear whether the team has a viable chance of purchasing the Civic Center. Under Reed’s direction, the city put the aging performing arts center up for sale in recent years in an effort to shed financially under-performing properties.

Atlanta began a closed bidding process for the property late last year, though a buyer has not been named.

A spokeswoman for Reed’s office said Thursday that the city is “still exploring all options and proposals” for the site.

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, https://www.ajc.com

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