Falcons' 25-year stay in Georgia Dome coming to an end

ATLANTA (AP) In 1994, Deion Sanders proclaimed the still-new Georgia Dome to be ''MY house'' and he added with equal emphasis ''I built this house.''

Sorry Deion, but the facility which actually belongs to the state of Georgia is on a fast track to a summer demolition.

Arthur Blank wanted a new home for his teams - the Atlanta Falcons and the new MLS Atlanta United FC. The $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium with its fancy retractable roof has risen beside the Georgia Dome.

Steve Cannon, chief executive officer of Blank's business group, announced Friday that Atlanta United FC's first home match will be played on July 30, and the Falcons will play two home exhibition games in August.

Cannon said construction on the new stadium has cleared early hurdles. ''Now really it's off to the races,'' Cannon said, adding there no longer is any speculation the Georgia Dome could be kept a few months longer as a backup plan.

''We're fully confident we'll be ready for the Falcons preseason, so we're beyond the safety net type of conversations,'' Cannon said.

The final event planned for the Georgia Dome is the Monster Jam on March 5. Then anything that can be used by the adjacent Georgia World Congress Center or the Falcons will be removed, setting the stage for demolition.

The GWCCA is negotiating for a hotel that will occupy part of the Georgia Dome site, spokesman Jason Kirksey said Friday. The rest of the site will be used for parking.

The Falcons, who moved into the Georgia Dome in 1992, hope to make a memorable farewell.

After winning the NFC South, they have a bye this week and will play a home game on Jan. 14. If they win, they move on to the NFC championship game. With a loss, their season - and their 25-year stay in the Georgia Dome - will end.

''It's been a great season,'' Blank said Sunday. ''We're thrilled with that and we're thrilled with being here in the Georgia Dome. ... The Georgia Dome has been a great place to play ball and we've got more games coming up this season.''

Sanders made his ''my house'' claim when he came back to Atlanta with the San Francisco 49ers and returned an interception 93 yards for a touchdown.

Other big stars shine in the Georgia Dome. Chris Chandler led the Falcons to their only Super Bowl in 1998. Quarterback Michael Vick, who rivaled Sanders as the most dynamic player in team history, won over the city before he was found guilty on felony dog fighting charges and was sent to prison.

This season's Falcons, led by MVP candidate Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, set a franchise scoring record.

Among other Falcons highlights in the dome were two teams that finished one win away from the Super Bowl - 2004 under Jim Mora and 2012 under Mike Smith.

The Falcons never enjoyed consistent sellouts in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but that changed when bad weather was no longer a concern in the dome. The team reports a current streak of 69 consecutive sellouts after 38 straight sellouts from 2002 to 2007.

Perhaps the facility's greatest strength has been its versatility. The dome has been home to Georgia State football, high school football state championships, Peach Bowls, SEC championship games, two Super Bowls, 1996 Olympic basketball, ACC and SEC basketball tournaments, three Final Fours, plus concerts and other events.

The dome served as one of two temporary homes for the NBA Atlanta Hawks when Philips Arena was being built. When the Chicago Bulls played the Hawks on March 27, 1998 in what was expected to be Michael Jordan's final visit to Atlanta, the turnout of 62,046 was the biggest in NBA history.

The dome suffered a torn roof but otherwise stood strong when a tornado hit downtown Atlanta during the 2008 SEC basketball tournament. The tournament had to move to Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

The Falcons had such former players as Vick and Roddy White return for last week's final regular-season home game. That set the stage for coach Dan Quinn's favorite memory of his two years in the dome.

''When we came out of the locker room at the half, so many of the former players that were there were just kind of fist-bumping a couple of the guys as they came through,'' Quinn said. ''I thought that was a pretty cool moment.

''As far as the stadium goes, for me it starts with the fans. That's the first thing you remember about a place, the enthusiasm of the fans and a city and what it brings to a stadium. That's what I think of, the fans, the city and the love they have for the team.''

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