SBJ/May 15-21, 2017/Facilities

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  • With delays in Atlanta, some questioning owner’s rep switch

    Don Muret
    Did the Atlanta Falcons make a mistake parting ways with the most experienced owner’s rep in sports?

    After multiple delays tied to construction of the retractable roof at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a complex design that for the first time integrates a giant video board into the roof structure, it seems like a fair question to ask. The stadium is now set to debut Aug. 26 for the Falcons’ first preseason game, almost six months later than the original March 1 targeted opening.

    Early in project development, Icon Venue Group, which has worked on 14 big-league stadiums alone over the past three decades, served as owner’s representative for the Falcons, coordinating schedules between architects and builders to make sure construction stayed on time and on budget.

    At the end of 2014, the Falcons made a switch in owner’s reps midstream and turned the job over to Darden & Co., an Atlanta firm owned by developer Bill Darden, a close friend of team owner Arthur Blank. The company has managed several real estate projects for Blank, but the Falcons’ stadium is its first sports development.

    At the time of the switch, Falcons officials told SportsBusiness Journal that all parties agreed it was in the best interests of the project for Darden & Co. to replace Icon Venue Group. But it’s rare for a team to change owner’s reps in the middle of a project, which has some industry observers questioning the Falcons’ decision after three delays pushed back the stadium opening. In most cases, the owner’s rep sees the project through to its completion.

    According to Bill Darden, the absence of Icon Venue Group for the past 2 1/2 years has had no effect on the project’s timeline. Tim Romani, CEO of Icon Venue Group, did not return an email for comment on the Falcons’ situation. During his career, Romani has managed $6 billion in sports development dating to the new Comiskey Park, the Chicago White Sox stadium that opened in 1991 and is now called Guaranteed Rate Field.

    Bottom line, Darden said the roof portion has been a “hyper-complicated” job with challenges that have gone beyond the blueprints, resulting in making some adjustments on the fly.

    “In some senses, we have a great set of documents to work with and in other senses … we’re sort of figuring some things out as we go,” he said. “There’s just no way around it. It’s never been built before, so sometimes you get up there and just have to figure it out.”

    Before exiting the project in December 2014, Icon Venue Group helped the Falcons reach a guaranteed maximum price of $1.4 billion. The total cost of Mercedes-Benz Stadium currently stands at $1.5 billion. The Falcons are responsible for paying all cost overruns, which includes $200 million in charge orders made public last summer, connected to issues over structural steel to build the roof.

    In a conference call with media outlets a few weeks ago, Falcons CEO Steve Cannon confirmed there were problems with steel pieces forming the roof that did not fit correctly after the materials arrived on site.

    The issues also bring to mind the general contractor responsible for construction. Four companies formed a joint venture, Holder Hunt Russell Moody, to build the stadium. It includes AECOM Hunt, which has constructed more retractable roofs than any other sports builder, including NFL stadiums for the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts.

    In Atlanta, though, local builder Holder Construction is the lead contractor, resulting in AECOM Hunt assuming a secondary role. Some observers wonder whether things would have been different had the more experienced sports builder been in charge of the development.

    The Falcons picked Holder as lead contractor and wouldn’t change a thing regarding the structure of the contractor agreement, Darden said.

    The team is using the expertise of both firms as well as the two other contractors, structural engineer BuroHappold and a “cadre of other folks to make sure everything falls in place,” Darden said. “The ultimate result is going to be phenomenal.”

    Don Muret can be reached at dmuret@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @breakground.

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