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City of Atlanta and the Braves: A Doomed Affair
The tale of star-crossed lovers in five acts and 600 stanzas (er, emails)
First of all, we journalists owe Atlanta city taxpayers a groveling apology. When news broke on Veterans’ Day that the Braves were decamping from Turner Field to Cobb County, City Hall was hit with enough Open Records requests to choke a goat. We’re told city attorneys reviewed some five hundred thousand emails, and from that mountain of data released 600 or so to the media on Thursday afternoon, presumably fulfilling all the requests in one fell swoop. I almost asked the mayor’s spokesman, Carlos Campos, how many hours it took city attorneys to review all this, but the prospect of the answer was too depressing.
Also depressing—not to mention mind-numbing to the point of drink—has been the process of going through these emails, since we know now how it ended. Which is to say, badly. (Except for John Schuerholz and his colleagues, of course, whose commutes to work will be significantly shortened. Oh, and Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee. But that’s another story.)
Act One: The foreshadowing
In reviewing the emails, one wonders, was the writing on the wall way back in October 2011, when the Braves outlined four options for the team’s future post-2016, the year its existing lease would expire? That memo outlined those choices concisely. First, the Braves could renew their lease with the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority (titular owners of Turner Field) in exchange for money for capital improvements to the Ted. Second, the Authority could simply transfer ownership of the Ted to the Braves. (“Transfer of real estate creates political challenges for the City of Atlanta and Fulton County leadership,” the October 7, 2011 draft memo states.) Third, the option the Braves clearly preferred (at the time, anyway) was to craft a public/private partnership to develop the area around the ballpark. Naturally, though, they wanted control, as we’ve explained. There was a fourth option briefly mentioned: Build a new stadium somewhere else—“a cornerstone of a large mixed use development near the majority of our fan base.”
The emails raise other questions, too. Less profound ones, perhaps, but entertaining still. Like, how does Mike Plant, the Braves’ executive vice president of business operations, decide what words to capitalize in his emails? What other American besides the city’s now suspended deputy chief operating officer Hans Utz uses the term “mucking about”? And, finally, why on Earth was the mayor’s own press team not informed about the Braves’ decision to leave town when the mayor himself was informed about it four days earlier?
Act Two: Let’s talk!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s instead go back to February 2012, when Plant emailed Duriya Farooqui, the city’s COO. Flagging his message as “red,” the Braves exec wrote: “I would like to set up a time to come and meet with you soon to discuss thoughts on how we proceed with our proposed Public/private partnership for the redevelopment of the Turner Field stadium site.”
I won’t bore you with all the details, but this email marked the beginning of what Mike Plant might now call “The Big Brush-off” but city officials might term “Mike Plant Needs to Chill the Hell Out.” As winter led to spring led to summer, Plant became increasingly anxious to meet with Farooqui, who, as COO, was often busy with other stuff. They finally agreed to meet on June 29, 2012. The emails I reviewed did not disclose how that meeting went (or if it even occurred), but in late July, Plant emailed a number of city officials to recap a meeting he had with AFCRA chairman Jim Hughes. In his email, Plant said he had assured Hughes that the Recreation Authority would have a seat at the negotiations, but Plant wasn’t too hopeful about county leaders contributing anything useful. “Very few,” he wrote, “have any real understanding of their role in the stadium complex since they have invested zero dollars since the stadium was built.”
Farooqui was unperturbed. “The lease renewal is more than 3 years out,” she wrote. In another email later the same day, she wrote Plant, “the conversation will begin in earnest two years later.” Keep in mind this was July 27, 2012. She clearly did not share Plant’s growing sense of urgency.
Which isn’t to say City Hall was ignoring the Braves. In August a team from the city, including Farooqui, went to Turner Field to discuss watershed improvements. A plan was hatched to build a vault under the media lot, according to a timeline provided to us by the city. And a month later, InvestAtlanta, the city’s economic development arm, invited developers to submit “requests for ideas” to transform the 55 acres of government-owned parking lots and other properties around the stadium into a vibrant mixed-use destination, where fans might actually like to linger before and after games. Plant, it seemed, was encouraged by the progress. By November, when his point person at City Hall was Utz, Plant was an avid cheerleader for what appeared to lie ahead. In an email to Utz, Plant characterized an interview he did with Jim Galloway of the AJC as “real positive. Told about our public/private partnership and the great working relationship with the mayor and his sr team.”
But by winter of 2013, the new Falcons stadium had hijacked all the headlines. On February 20, Plant sent Utz a link to an AJC story about the latest development to fulfill Arthur Blank’s wish to tear down the Georgia Dome and build a new stadium. “Seems like a lot of blocking and tackling today,” Plant wrote. “I’m sure we will deal with much of the same in the not to distant future regardless of how different our future plans are compared to the Falcons. … I know u guys have your hands full.”
Utz, perhaps reading between the lines, tried to move the Braves back to the front burner. In a February 26 email to deputy city attorney Peter Andrews, Utz asked for a date when the city’s team could meet with the Braves. “May?” Andrews wrote back. Evidently, though, Utz managed to schedule an earlier meeting in March, but the city had to back out.
Plant was not happy as the bridesmaid to Arthur Blank’s bridezilla. On March 20 he wrote an email that, of all the documents dumped by the mayor’s office, most succinctly distills the mounting tensions between the team and City Hall. “have to be honest with you Hans, that sends a very bad message that now I have to pass on to our chairman who I briefed yesterday on the current status and upcoming discussion. I think you and I should talk very soon. If you look at it from our perspective, we met with the mayor and peter [Aman, former city COO] in October of 2011. 18 months later we are no further along in resolving any of the 3 major components of our discussion presented at that time. On the other hand, we have watched the state pass a major funding initiative for a new falcons stadium and that has now gone thru all the proper channels including approval by the city council in 7 short weeks.”
Utz passed Plant’s concern upstairs to Farooqui. “This probably requires some love from you,” he wrote. “I don’t think he is being particularly reasonable. He knows how much work the new dome has required, he knows the conversation is happening in real time, and he knows that his conversation is not as imminent from a timing standpoint.” Utz went on to say that talks had not progressed because “aside from me all of the people required to advance the conversation have been deep in football stadium talks.”
Farooqui wasn’t hearing it. “Got it,” she wrote Utz. “However, our stadium talks began 4 weeks ago and we began the [Braves] working group a year ago…so we can’t attribute lack of progress to the NFL stadium.”
Eight days later, on March 28, Plant returned from the Central Atlanta Progress breakfast, where Arthur Blank and Rich McKay presented Reed with a Falcons jersey in honor of the new stadium deal. Plant fumed. “Reminded me,” he wrote Utz, “that I have not heard from Duriya and I belive [sic] you were going to re confirm that april 8th is a concrete date for us to meet.”
In April, Plant arranged a trip for the Braves’ series at Coors Field in Denver against the Rockies. He invited state politicians, as well as city officials. “The Denver stadium area is a great example of what we would like to do around Turner Field.”
Around the same time, Atlanta magazine deputy editor Rebecca Burns was working on a story about Turner Field that would run in the July issue. In a May 20 email to Sonji Jacobs, a former Reed spokesperson, Burns asked if there was any discussion about the possibility of the Braves leaving Turner Field for another location in metro Atlanta. Jacobs, who evidently did not know about the plans for redeveloping the parking lots, passed the question along to Farooqui, who advised Jacobs, “There has been no discussion about the Braves leaving. If you don’t address, people will assume that it might be possible.”
Interestingly, that very possibility was discussed at the July 2013 board meeting of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority. According to the minutes, which cite the team as the source, “if there is no development around Turner Field, then, the team will move and look for another city/stadium/location for playing Major League Baseball.”
Act Three: And a maglev shall rule them all
Now begins the part of the story I will call the Great Fairy Tale, otherwise known as Maglev. At some point, Plant began to see maglev transit as one answer to the congestion that had Braves fans—and commuters—stuck in traffic on game days. Estimates to build a maglev line from Five Points station to Turner Field ran as high as $30 million. To carry people less than two miles!
Plant soldiered on. In an April 10 email to Utz, he said the Braves would commit $500,000 to the operation of the maglev. “We believe using OPM (other peoples money), this is a very viable solution for us to explore,” Plant wrote. Other people’s money? Whose? Ira Curry’s?
But by August, City Hall was analyzing the optics of a maglev line. Tom Weyandt, the mayor’s senior policy advisor for transportation, wrote Utz a detailed email outlining his “top of the head” concerns about maglev. What’s the impact on the sidewalks, the roads? Who’s funding it? (Didn’t you hear, Tom? Other people’s money!) How will it work with MARTA? What’s the maintenance plan? And on and on.
Weyandt sought some more details from the Spanish company providing the technology, but wasn’t satisfied with the answers, which, he wrote to Farooqui, “just suggests how speculative this really is.”
Still, as expensive as the maglev looked to be, it was peanuts compared to the prospect of extending the streetcar from downtown to Turner Field. Estimated pricetag for that? As much as $110 million. Even mass transit believers were skeptical.
“For what it’s worth,” Nathan Constable of the Atlanta BeltLine said in an April 5 email to Utz, “I have strong reservations about ending the line at Turner Field. It would work well for baseball games and could replace some of the GSU and Fulton County shuttle activity, but would not have a strong residential or employment base around it until the parking lots redevelop.” In other words, it would be a train to nowhere 284 days a year. Constable said it would make more sense to extend the Atlanta Streetcar line into Summerhill or Grant Park, providing connectivity to Zoo Atlanta.
Act Four: A modest proposal
On September 19 of this year, the Braves released their list of demands to the city if the team was to stay at Turner Field. They included:
- $10 million a year or 25 percent (whichever was greater) of all
revenue around the development, such as rentals, lease, parking,
- No fast-food restaurants other than one coffeeshop, such as a
- A limit of two sports bars and two “fine-dining” restaurants,
provided they were at least 1,600 feet from Turner Field’s front
- No strip clubs, tattoo parlors, liquor stories, title loan shops,
auto shops, pawn shops “or any establishments that might be
offensive or vulgar to the community or Braves’ fans.”
- Additional transit options, such as light rail or….maglev!
- $150 million in capital improvements to the stadium over three
years, to be split evently among the Braves, the Authority, and
the city and Fulton County.
- An end to Recreation Authority oversight of the stadium.
- Braves to take over all parking agreements.
By the way, if you’re wondering what that $150 million in improvements included, the Braves included a list of no fewer than 60 items. Examples: replacing all 17 video boards (for $17 million); new “directional signage” (for $342,500); new carpeting ($3.6 million) repaving the parking lots ($29 million); and yes, new greasetraps.($126,000. For new greasetraps!)
The Braves’ attorney, Greg Heller, explained to his counterpart at City Hall, Peter Andrews, that, “it is critical that we make significant progress and reach consensus as soon as possible.”
Boy, he wasn’t kidding. Because by that time, Plant and other Braves execs were already in talks with Cobb County, having toured the 60-acre site in August.
Indeed, trouble was brewing. Andrews wrote Heller that the Braves could participate in the selection process for the developer, but wouldn’t have final say. What’s more, City Hall and the Braves weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on how revenue from the development would fund improvements at the stadium.
A dozen miles north, Tim Lee was rubbing his hands together in glee.
Act Five: Goodbye Atlanta Braves, Hello Smyrna Shitholes!
Braves officials, including Plant and Schuerholz, broke the news to Reed and Farooqui on Thursday, November 7. As Campos characterized it in an email to us on Thursday, “The Braves never gave the City an opportunity to counter any offer from Cobb, or any other municipality or entity. They abruptly, and without warning, announced they were moving to Cobb, running counter to what we believed up until that point had been good faith negotiations.”
Whether or not Reed was surprised by the news, his team certainly was caught flat-footed the following Monday when the Marietta Daily Journal broke the story four days later, on November 11—scooping the AJC on the biggest civic story in Atlanta in a generation. (But we’ll save that for another day.) Campos, fielding reporter inquiries from far and wide, emailed his colleagues, “I’m clueless.” Utz, who’d been working with the Braves for more than a year, clearly felt burned, dashing off his now-infamous “Smyrna Shitholes” email. Seriously, though, can you blame him?
It was a long day at City Hall, as reporters were scrambling to parse the implications of an Atlanta institution moving to the 'burbs. Katie Leslie, an AJC reporter, even sent Utz six paragraphs of the story she was working on, asking him to “take a look at this…I’m terrified of an error on deadline.”
Up in Cobb, the champagne was already on ice.