Cover Story: Bye-bye, Braves

An inside look at how the stadium deal happened, why the move matters to the city, and what happens next

The announcement came out of nowhere. On Nov. 11, the Atlanta Braves confirmed that, after playing professional baseball just a few blocks from Downtown since 1966, the team had decided to pack its bags and move to Cobb County for opening day 2017. The ball club would start a new season in a new home at the same time as the Atlanta Falcons.

At first, the news seemed like a strategic leak to pressure the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, which owns and operates Turner Field, and other city officials to acquiesce to the franchise’s demands for greater investment in and around the sports facility. But within hours, a brand-new website promoting the proposed athletic complex overlooking interstates 285 and 75 near Cumberland Mall appeared. The OTP site is an untapped 60-acre swath of woods smack-dab in the heart of sprawl, tucked between the two highways, and miles from any MARTA stop. County officials first must approve the nearly $672 million deal - and potentially face the wrath of their vocal, anti-tax constituency - before their coup is complete. But if approved, the deal would leave a hole in Atlanta’s fabric that for decades has been occupied by baseball.

The team would still be called the Atlanta Braves and keep an Atlanta mailing address though it would be located outside the city limits. Team President John Schuerholz said in a scripted video message that the new stadium would be one of “the most magnificent in all of baseball.” But the deal, hatched in secret, comes with myriad questions. And while the Braves would still serve Atlantans, the organization would be abandoning Summerhill, Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, and the stadium’s other surrounding southeast Atlanta neighborhoods that were walloped and uplifted, depending on your perspective, for 81 days each year. Mayor Kasim Reed is wishing the team well on its journey but it’s uncertain what fate awaits the city without the team that’s been part of its identity for so long.

Braves executives say they decided to move because of “insurmountable” transit and development issues; that fans couldn’t easily access Turner Field despite its proximity to I-20 and the Downtown Connector and available MARTA shuttle service from Underground Atlanta and Georgia State University. The franchise also claims it couldn’t develop the surrounding area to suit its needs. Finally, officials say the new stadium would be closer to the bulk of its ticket holders, which are predominantly located in the north metro area, according to the Braves’ ticket sales data.

Cobb officials enticed the Braves with an alluring offer — which wasn’t finalized until days after the announcement — that would cover approximately 45 percent of the stadium’s estimated $672 million cost using a combination of local cash, including car rental and hotel and motel taxes, and $14 million in transportation funds. Also on the list: nearly $9 million each year plucked from existing tax revenues. All told, taxpayers in the conservative county would be on the hook for $300 million, with the team covering the rest. The Cobb County Commission must still approve the deal at its Nov. 26 meeting. Braves officials have “secured,” but not yet purchased, wooded property that would become the site of the proposed stadium and an encompassing mixed-use entertainment district, a team spokeswoman told CL last week. Schuerholz said the complex, a few minutes away from the Cobb Galleria Centre, Cumberland Mall, and Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, will “thrive with action 365 days a year” and provide a “first-rate gameday experience.”

From a business perspective, the answer was simple. Braves executives had the option of enjoying a brand-new facility in Cobb or finding a way to divvy up the estimated $150 million worth of needed infrastructure repairs to the Ted, including new seats and lighting. Yet Schuerholz said those improvements weren’t enough. The franchise decided to travel north on congested I-75 for several acres of forest, or what it considers greener pastures.

Without a confirmed deal, Cobb County heavy hitters, including Chairman Tim Lee, who worked in secret since July to broker the relocation deal with the county’s chamber of commerce, have proclaimed victory, posing on the front page of the Marietta Daily Journal in Braves jerseys and clutching baseball bats, putting an official face on the urban-suburban tension that has existed for decades. Most recently it reared its head during the 2012 transportation tax campaign.

Cobb, a prosperous county — the annual median income, according to the most recent U.S. Census, is $65,423 — is just on the other side of the Chattahoochee River but politically is a world away. Residents of the conservative stronghold, which is becoming more diverse as Atlanta grows more white, were expected to show opposition to the notion of helping a billionaire’s professional sports team build a stadium. Especially after balancing the county’s education budget with teacher layoffs and furloughs. And according to polls of Cobb voters conducted after the announcement, most welcomed the Braves moving but didn’t support public funding to do so. Some have expressed skepticism over the types of jobs the stadium will create, potential transportation issues, and the behind-the-scenes process used to broker the deal. The Tea Party, which was initially silent after the announcement, said on Monday that it would try to derail Cobb’s financing deal with telephone and email campaigns urging county commissioners to reject the deal.

“Backroom deals do not inspire confidence in elected officials — no matter how good their intentions,” says David Staples, a small-business owner who lives in Cobb and is vice chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association.

But for all of the concerns about Turner Field’s supposed lack of interstate access and transit options, the proposed site also poses arguably much more significant traffic problems. The I-75/I-285 interchange serves as a major thoroughfare and is already rife with congestion. According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, more than 100,000 vehicles travel on the interstates in each direction during the weekday rush hour — approximately 6,000 fewer vehicles than near Turner Field. Claims of easy interstate access might not prove so realistic without significant road projects. Transit options are also minimal. Atlanta’s nearest rail station is MARTA’s Arts Center stop approximately eight miles away. And Cobb County’s bare-bones bus system currently offers no Sunday service. Cobb officials point to proposed transportation fixes — a diverging-diamond interchange along Windy Hill Road and a tram linking the Cheesecake Factory and other Cumberland-area restaurants to the stadium — and have reportedly briefed Braves suits on other county studies and projects in the pipeline. Yet there’s no telling if those could accommodate the more than 40,000 fans the Braves hope will flock to the stadium every game day. GDOT was caught off guard by news of the move. As was MARTA. Lee has flat-out rejected the transit agency coming to the county, preferring bus-rapid transit. Joe Dendy, the chairman of the county’s Republican Party, wants zero public transit. He released a statement reminding many people that Cobb’s population has grown but some of its residents’ mindsets haven’t:

“It is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”

Prior to the surprise news, Braves execs and the city had been engaged in “good-faith” negotiations for more than 18 months over renewing the team’s Turner Field lease. In addition to maintenance responsibilities, Braves execs, city officials, developers, and community leaders wanted to improve the surrounding area which struggles during the 284 days each year the Braves don’t play. North of the stadium sits the dismal 55-acre parking lot. Over the years, some homes were torn down or burned and were replaced by parking lots. Georgia Avenue’s walkable commercial strip looks like a war zone and only recently saw life and color thanks to some Living Walls murals.

The Braves and the city worked together on vending reforms, sewage infrastructure improvements, and a light-rail proposal. But city documents show that, in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for upgrades and other improvements, team officials also wanted to handpick the proposed development across the street from Turner Field, bid on the project themselves, and work without AFCRA’s involvement. In other words, the Braves wanted to pick their own plan. The city, which made the Falcons’ $1.2 billion stadium deal its top priority throughout early 2013, denied those requests earlier this summer, considering the arrangement to be a conflict of interest. Reed claims he was also hesitant to bend on removing AFCRA from the equation, since it would require legislative action from the General Assembly. The team countered with more development requirements two months ago asking for higher revenue shares, influence over selected tenants, and other guarantees.

City officials say they were vetting the proposals and expected to respond in mid-November. The Braves got back in touch first. Cobb offered a clean slate. The team could be closer to what it considers to be the center of its fan base, play games in a brand-new stadium, keep most of the revenues, and build the exact entertainment district it wants. It’d also escape an economically stressed area with little obligation to look back.

Braves execs informed Reed about their decision Nov. 7. Four days later on Veterans Day the news leaked. According to Reed, the city would’ve needed to supply between $150-$250 million to keep the franchise in Atlanta. The mayor didn’t want to simultaneously finance two stadium deals. So he wished the ball club well, downplayed the relocation’s impact, and encouraged people to embrace regionalism.

“It bothers me that we haven’t come far enough as a community that a 12-mile move is seen as something that hurts the city,” Reed said at a press conference after the announcement.

Not everyone sees the situation the same way. Fulton officials and some Atlanta City Councilmembers last week called for a last-minute deal to convince the ball club to stick around. These elected leaders mostly found out about the news through the media, including those who represented the neighborhoods around the Ted. Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith was one of them, cursing when reached on the phone by CL the day of the announcement. Some reps have raised concerns over the lack of transparency and information about the team’s negotiations with the city. Others disagree with the mayor’s decision to stand behind the Falcons but let the Braves walk because of relatively high demands.

The looming question, however, is what happens to Atlanta — and more importantly, the 55 acres including Turner Field and nearby communities — should the Braves ink a deal with Cobb following its forthcoming vote on Nov. 26. The few businesses left in the surrounding area trying to keep afloat might be left without a magnet. Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau President William Pate, however, told WABE (90.1-FM) that the estimated impact of the Braves’ exit to city attractions and hotel-room stays would be minimal — about the size of losing a “medium-size convention,” he said.

“They’re not moving to Birmingham,” Pate told the radio station. “They’re moving 10 miles up the road.”

After the news broke, leaders of surrounding neighborhood groups’ feelings ranged from resigned disappointment to utter disbelief to excitement. Following decades of enduring game-day crowds, closed streets, gypsy parking lots, litter, and stifled development, the view outside their front porches has the potential to change drastically. Some residents, at first so despondent over the loss of the Braves that they organized campaigns to retain the team, are beginning to prepare for life after the team.

One could argue that, in the long run, the team’s exit may give the neighborhoods and Atlanta the chance to repurpose a massive swath of valuable intown land, and see whether the ill effects of Turner Field can be undone or are simply symptoms of something larger than baseball and game-day crowds. The economic hardships in Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, and Summerhill predate the Ted. During the days of Urban Renewal in the mid-20th century, once-dense neighborhoods that were home to thriving Jewish and African-American populations were wiped out to make room for the interstate and the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Decades later and after the first facility’s demolition, thousands of residents, many of them low income, were displaced during the Olympic facility’s construction in the early to mid-’90s. Entire communities were uprooted and divided.

Even after the Braves moved across the street to Turner Field, the neighborhoods never truly recovered. Businesses shuttered after endless asphalt and yellow stripes replaced working-class families. Property crime spiked in residential areas flooded with fans on the prowl for cheaper or free parking. Revenues from official parking lots, which were partially funneled back to surrounding community groups for projects, did not uplift the neighborhoods, became the source of a lawsuit, and furthered community strife. The benefits of that cash over the years has been negligible at best. The parking revenue trust fund, one could argue, contributed to the stasis. Additional efforts over the years to address some concerns were offered, but there was no vision to radically change the status quo around Turner Field by either side. This was a place people visited to watch baseball and not much else.

While there’s a chance the surrounding neighborhoods could turn into a ghost town in the post-Braves era, it’s also possible, with the right thinking, that the stadium’s sprawling parking lots could be converted into an ideal combination of retail, residential, commercial, and greenspace. Reed, who already seemed to have a plan in mind, said some form of development will emerge. If the Braves leave, Turner Field will be razed. The mayor called the property an “ideal tract of land for middle-class families.” He thinks it could even have a “Glenwood feel” similar to the East Atlanta neighborhood’s award-winning design. According to WABE, this is news to Fulton County Chairman John Eaves, who chairs the political body that appoints three members to AFCRA, the stadium’s owner.

“If done well, it could be energizing,” says Jim Williamson, president of the Chosewood Park Neighborhood Association. “The city deserves something better there. The neighborhoods deserve something better there.”

It’ll be weeks or months before the city reveals its master plans for Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville for 2017 and beyond. The rumor mill is already churning with potential ideas regarding the area’s future. An announcement from Reed is said to be expected soon. Owners of vacant parcels, who long ago purchased land to make a quick buck, might finally have a reason to sell or develop the properties. Community leaders and reps are forming a task force to protect the surrounding neighborhoods’ interests. While some residents will inevitably hold out for the team staying at the Ted, most will prepare for a brave new world.