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Atlanta United FC to Build Training Complex in Marietta

By Kimeko McCoy

The Marietta City Council on Wednesday agreed to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Arthur Blank’s Major League Soccer club to build its headquarters and training complex in the Franklin Road corridor. 

The council voted 6-1 with Anthony Coleman opposed, to lease 32 acres of city property to the Atlanta United Football Club. 

The site will include six lighted soccer fields and serve as the headquarters for Atlanta United players and staff. Planning for construction on the Atlanta United training complex is expected to begin immediately, with completion estimated by early 2017. 

The team’s headquarters building is expected to be 28,300 square feet, housing a staff of 123, according to Beth Sessoms, the city’s economic development director. 

Speaking to reporters after the vote while wearing a pin depicting the Big Chicken on his lapel, Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United, expressed his delight. 

“We’re striving to be a world-class team. This is going to be a world-class facility, and we’re going to have big teams,” Eales said. “Real Madrid, Barcelona are going pass through Atlanta, and they’re going to be training in Marietta at this site, so the excitement that kids can come and watch a Gareth Bale or a Cristiano Ronaldo training in Marietta, I think, is really exciting.” 

Eales said he intended to make the training sessions as open as possible. 

“So people can drop by and watch the team training, a father can come with his son when it’s the holidays and they can actually see their heroes playing, so we want it to be more open. Compare that to England where I came from. It was like Fort Knox at our training ground. It was sealed and we don’t want to have that.”

Atlanta United originally planned to locate its training complex in DeKalb County after the county offered to spend $12 million in helping preparing a location. But once DeKalb officials and the soccer team discovered the site in question, located over a landfill, would take more than $20 million to fix, Atlanta United opted to build in Marietta. 

“The land here, we did our due diligence, and there’s no problems with the land, and obviously that was the issue we had with DeKalb was just in terms of geotechnical problems that meant it was just not feasible as a site,” Eales said. “The site in Marietta is ready to go so we’re excited about that. We know that we’ve got a tight timeline because we start playing in March 2017, so timing is important for us because we are looking to obviously have our facility up as soon as we can.”

The terms

Atlanta United and the city have agreed to a 20-year lease with two five-year options to renew. 

The team will rent the property from the city for $1 a year for the first 10 years, followed by an annual $320,000 per year for the second 10 years. Annual rent would escalate for inflation based on the Consumer Price Index subject to a cap of 4 percent for any single year.

The agreement also calls for a 10-year abatement through the Marietta Development Authority and Cobb Board of Tax Assessors. Under the first year of the abatement, Atlanta United would not pay any city, county or school taxes. In its second year, the tax abatement would be 90 percent, decreasing 10 percent each year over the 10-year span until the franchise begins paying the full tax rate. 

The Marietta facility will serve as a training ground for the club’s first team and youth academy program and will be the host site for various youth development programs and tournaments. Atlanta United matches will be played at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. 

“So with the soccer team we’ll obviously have our first team training here when we start playing in March 2017, but it’s also important to us that we have our academy players, our under-12s, under-13s, under-14, under-16 and under-18 team, because we need to try and recruit homegrown players to play in Atlanta’s first team,” Eales said. 

Six fields, he said, gives the franchise the grouping it needs to have both the first team and the academy teams on site. 

“We’re going to have lots of youngsters coming to train with us. And ours will be free to play so we don’t charge money. We just want to get the best players in the area wherever they’re from and get them into that Atlanta first team.” 

Objections

During the meeting, Councilman Philip Goldstein raised concerns about certain passages in the memorandum of understanding. 

One line troubling him states the team “agrees to use its best efforts to invest a minimum of $40 million to improve the facility on or before March 31, 2017.”

Goldstein asked why “best efforts” couldn’t be changed to “shall invest $40 million,” to which city attorney Doug Haynie said Atlanta United’s lawyers refused to accept that change. 

Yet Haynie said he is not concerned with the language given Atlanta United’s timeline. 

“Their market necessity is going to control that,” Haynie said. “They’ve got to be up and running and playing soccer in March of 2017. They want to break ground January 2016. I don’t think anybody’s worried about ‘best efforts.’ Now, if there’s an earthquake or labor strike I think this ought to come into play, but they’ve got to get this thing up and running.”

Consider, Haynie continued, how much Atlanta United is going to spend improving the city’s 32 acres. 

“Realize the number they’re going to put on that property is $58 million,” Haynie said. “City Council said ‘how about putting a minimum on there?’ They said ‘we’re OK with minimum, we just won’t leave the word shall in there.’”

While Goldstein attempted to make amendments to the MOU, his motion failed for lack of a second vote. Goldstein ultimately ended up voting in favor of the MOU, but said he was frustrated that it was negotiated by Haynie and Mayor Steve Tumlin without input from the City Council. 

“I’ve spent almost 40 years in commercial real estate. I deal with leases on a day-to-day basis,” Goldstein said. “The MOU leaves a lot of room for improvement.”

A detailed lease agreement and approval of the site plan is also needed before the project can begin. Goldstein said he hoped Tumlin and Haynie would include the council on those negotiations. 

A tentative vote on those final agreements is set for Dec. 9. 

Coleman, meantime, said he voted against the proposal because he had only received the MOU hours before the meeting and wanted more time to study it. 

South of the Atlanta United site and across Franklin Road is the former Preston Chase apartment complex, one of four complexes the city has purchased and razed on Franklin Road. 

Under the proposal, the city is responsible for building three lighted multipurpose fields on that 13-acre site, along with parking, and restroom and concession facilities. Depending on the design, the project could cost between $3.5 million to $5 million, according to City Manager Bill Bruton. 

With those three additional fields, Eales said, “We can bring big tournaments to this area so that’s something people will be staying in the area, they’ll be staying in hotels, so there’s all of those benefits as well.”

Town hall 

Tumlin hosted a town hall on the proposal an hour before the council meeting. During that meeting, Franklin Road resident Sonja Pullard asked about increased traffic, potential partnerships with the community and AUFC, and the county’s role in the deal.

Tumlin said he did not expect a dramatic increase in traffic but did anticipate expected partnerships with the community and soccer team.

Tumlin also said the county has been supportive during the process.

The property is available thanks to a $68 million redevelopment bond approved by voters to, in large part, revitalize the Franklin Road corridor. The city has used about $47.7 million in bond revenues to acquire the four apartment complex properties, a total of 90 acres. 

Marietta resident Larry Wills said he thinks the soccer complex and similar projects are a waste of tax dollars and “corporate welfare.”

“The purpose of the $68 million bond was to obtain this property, sell it to a Fortune 500 or high-tech corporation, let them build a big building and bring in a lot high-tech jobs and increase the Marietta city tax digest by many fold and pour a whole lot of money into the school system,” Wills said. “This project’s not going to do that at all. It’ll never pay off the $68 million bond in our lifetime.”

Councilman Stuart Fleming spoke to Wills’ concerns from the audience.

“The bond that I voted on mentioned nothing of Fortune 500 companies. It mentioned revitalization of the area and we’ve surely accomplished the revitalization. Maybe not the Fortune 500, but that wasn’t language that was in the bond,” Fleming said.

Tumlin said after the meeting he was elated. 

“They kept asking me ‘why’d you get it and not DeKalb.’ Because we were ready,” Tumlin said. “We’d already torn the property down. DeKalb hadn’t. And so they didn’t have time to address their warts. But for that it wouldn’t have happened.”

As for redevelopment in the Franklin Road corridor, “I think it’s going to explode,” Tumlin said. “This wasn’t about soccer, this was about an international business. This business is going to put a lot of money into it. We’re excited.” 

Councilman Johnny Walker also spoke highly of the project.

“I think this is the best thing to happen to Marietta since the people voted in our visionary Mayor Tumlin,” Walker said.

Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal - Atlanta United FC to Build Training Complex in Marietta