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Atlanta asks historic churches to move for new downtown stadium

Two historic Atlanta churches, Friendship Baptist and Mount Vernon Baptist, are both located where the city wants to build a new stadium to replace the 20-year-old Georgia Dome. NBC's Ron Allen reports.

By Ron Allen, Correspondent, NBC News

ATLANTA -- Friendship Baptist Church is making a monumental decision as it celebrates its 151-year anniversary: It's one of two historic churches standing in the path of a new $1 billion domed football stadium that the Atlanta Falcons and the city want to build.

Determined to keep the NFL team downtown, Atlanta is negotiating with Friendship Baptist to move.

"I don't think [money] should even enter our decision-making. I really don't," said parishioner Juanita Jones Abernathy, whose late husband was a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "It's a landmark. I think it should remain. It's been there for generations, and it needs to be there for generations to come."


Friendship Baptist dates back to the Civil War when slaves first held services in a train boxcar near where the church now stands. Its basement has been home to the famous historically black colleges Spelman and Morehouse.

 

For Abernathy, moving the church would be a mistake, "because that's our history," she said. "That's who we are."

'I'm going to use all my power as mayor'

The first offer was about $10 million, or about 10 times the appraised market value of the church and its land.

"It is something that we are looking at very carefully and prayerfully because we understand that this, in a way, is a once-in-a-lifetime decision," said Friendship Baptist board leader Lloyd Hawk, who has been a member for about five decades. 

When asked about the odds of selling or staying, Hawk responded, "I think the congregation right now is very open to possibilities and opportunities in discussion." 

Leaders at the other church being asked to move, Mount Vernon Baptist, chose not to answer questions about their negotiations.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says he's moving forward while listening to what the Friendship congregation asks and has to say. If both churches refuse to move, there is an alternative, though less desirable, site nearby.

"I'm going to use all of my power as mayor to make sure that Friendship Baptist Church locates just a short distance from where we are today. And they will be a stronger church, a stronger organization that is much more capable because of the millions of dollars that we are going to pay for that church," Reed said.

Atlanta Falcons team owner Arthur Blank declined an on-camera interview with NBC News. But in an email he echoed Reed, saying, "No one is interested in forcing the church off its property."

Blank also promised to invest $15 million in the communities near the new stadium. That is in addition to the hundreds of millions Blank say his family's foundation has invested or given to Greater Atlanta since the Georgia Dome was first built some 20 years ago. A bigger, brand-new stadium would bring both prestige and money, in addition to making Atlanta an attractive host city for the Super Bowl. 

Reed insists the churches aren't being pressured. 

"I've taken eminent domain off the table, so there's no threat or intimidation occurring here," Reed said. "If the majority of the members of Friendship don't want to move, the only thing you're going to hear from me is respect."

'I will follow them where they go'

After church on a recent Sunday morning, many parishioners at Friendship Baptist said they thought moving was inevitable.

"My heart said 'no,' but you've got progress. And progress is going to prevail no matter what," said Larry Dozier, a member for 25 years.

"I don't think it’s a trade-off situation," church-goer Pearl Logan said. "I think it's accommodating what Atlanta needs."

Member James Hilliard summed it up this way: "It will be sad, but I will follow them where they go."

Both congregations will make decisions in the coming week, with much thought, reflection and a lot of prayer.