tlanta approves $213 million arena

ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta, which lost the Flames to Calgary in 1980, moved to the front of the NHL expansion race Wednesday when a deal for a $213 million arena cleared its final governmental hurdle.
Turner Broadcasting System executives were jubilant after the Fulton County Commission approved plans calling for the new arena to be built on the site of the Omni.
“We’ve always felt like we’re a strong contender,” said William Shaw, vice president for Turner Sports. “With the new arena in place, it’s icing on the cake. We could be and should be awarded an NHL franchise.”
A Turner official immediately contacted the NHL to let it know of the commission’s 5-2 vote Wednesday, and Shaw said he expected to receive word on the bid for an expansion franchise within a few days. The team would begin play in 1999.
TBS chief Ted Turner already has suggested Thrashers as a potential name for the team. The brown thrasher is Georgia’s state bird.
Most observers consider Atlanta, the largest television market in the country without an NHL team, a virtual lock to land one of the four expansion franchises the league is expected to add by the end of the decade.
The other contenders are Columbus, Ohio; St. Paul, Minn.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Houston, Texas; and Nashville, Tenn.
The NHL expansion committee met privately Wednesday in New York, but no announcement was planned. Commissioner Gary Bettman was expected to discuss the issue at a news conference Friday during the Stanley Cup finals.
“We’re hopeful he’ll announce it then,” Shaw said.
Nashville, which already has a new 18,000-seat arena in place, and Houston, also a prime television market in the Sun Belt, are rated the other leading contenders. Columbus, which tried unsuccessfully to lure the Hartford Whalers, boosted its chances with approval of a plan for a privately funded arena.
Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. will put up 90 percent of the Columbus arena’s $125 million cost, with the rest coming from The Dispatch Printing Co.
Last month, Franklin County voters rejected a sales tax that would have helped pay for a downtown arena-stadium complex. But the private funding deal for an 18,500-seat arena puts Ohio’s capital city back in the race.
Atlanta’s arena, which also will house the NBA’s Hawks, was jeopardized when changes were required in the financial terms.
The Hawks initially pledged all their revenues to repay $140 million in government-backed construction bonds if the facility’s income failed to cover them. The NBA blocked that provision, ruling that players and coaches would have to be paid before the bond revenues were repaid.
Turner officials then agreed to put up the Hawks franchise as collateral. The revised deal was approved unanimously by the Atlanta City Council and the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, but Fulton County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis said he could no longer support the arena.
“I was not put on this board to represent the interests of a New York company that wants a free arena,” he said, referring to Turner’s parent company, Time Warner, the world’s largest entertainment and media company. “And that’s what it is: a free arena.”
But a majority of the commission thought the city and county were well protected in the deal.
“I fully believe that within a week of approving this arena, we will be notified that we have a hockey franchise,” commissioner Tom Lowe said.
An implosion will take down the Omni next month and construction will begin on the new arena, which is scheduled to open in October 1999. For the next two years, the Hawks will split their games between the Georgia Dome and Georgia Tech’s campus arena.