Last Wednesday, at 7:39 in the morning, Mayor Kasim Reed got a text from Mike Plant, executive vice president of business operations for the Atlanta Braves. Reed wasn’t hung over (he doesn’t drink), but he was probably exhausted; the night before he’d been up late celebrating his landslide re-election. Plant congratulated Reed on his victory but said they needed to meet on an urgent matter. At 3:30 the next afternoon, Reed sat down in the library in his office. Plant was there, and so was Braves president John Schuerholz, along with Cathy Hampton, the city attorney, and Duriya Farooqui, the city’s chief operating officer.
And so that afternoon, Reed said at a press conference today, was when he first heard the news that the Braves would be moving to Cobb County. Reed didn’t characterize his reaction at the meeting, but it’s fair to say he wasn’t shocked. While the Braves had spent the past year and a half in talks with the city, City Hall’s focus over much of the past year had been finalizing a deal for the construction of a new stadium for the Falcons. Indeed, in February and March of this year, according to a timeline provided by the mayor’s office, the city entered a “period of low responsiveness” to the Braves, thanks to the Falcons deal. At that point, the timeline says, Plant “express[ed] opinion that the Braves should get the same level of attention.”
A month later, Braves reps met with Reed. What did they talk about? Maglev trains to the stadium as a way to address the lousy access issues to the Ted. But let’s be honest here—Maglev trains are to public transit discussions what Euclidean geometry is to Miley Cyrus: aspirational beyond reason. The fact is, the writing was on the wall and the Braves were getting out their indelible markers to trace over it. Though Reed’s office made some good-faith gestures—involving vending outside the park and drainage issues beneath it—the Braves were starting to take other meetings. So, too, was City Hall.
“We had to war-game the possibility of them not [staying] here,” Reed said at the press conference, where he had to achieve two objectives before the cameras: Make a compelling case that his administration had not treated the Braves as the red-headed stepchild compared with the Falcons, and to spin the loss of the Braves to Cobb as not so much a loss for the city as a win for the region—and, for the neighborhood around Turner Field, the biggest win of all.
On that latter point, Reed announced that the sixty-acre tract currently occupied by Turner Field and acres of asphalt will be developed into housing for middle-income residents.
“We are not going to leave a vacant Ted,” Reed said. “When [the Braves] leave, we’re going to have a master developer that is going to demolish the Ted and we’re going to have one of the largest developments for middle class people that the city of Atlanta has ever had.”
Reed said it would not be fiscally wise, or politically prudent, to pony up between $150 million and $250 million to the Braves—improvements in and around the stadium that the franchise wanted.
“The city would have had to finance between $150 and $250 million of debt out of the city’s general fund,” Reed said. “I’ve been talking about roads, bridges, and infrastructure for the entire time I’ve been in office. We have a $922 million infrastructure backlog. That has to be dealt with. I don’t want folks at home to think that we were taking the investment in the Atlanta Braves lightly. We weren’t at all. We wanted the Braves to stay in Atlanta. But that was the business problem we had to solve.”
To those who wonder why the city could make a deal to keep the Falcons and not the Braves, Reed’s answer was simple: The hotel-motel tax created a revenue stream to pay the city’s $200 million portion of the $1.2 billion Falcons stadium. No such stream, he said, existed for the Braves.
Ultimately, Cobb County’s part of the deal—a reported $450 million, though Cobb officials since have said that amount is incorrect—was sweeter than anything the city could offer, Reed said. As high-minded as he made pains to appear about the loss, the sting was obvious in some of his comments, contrasting the fiscal stewardship of Atlanta with that of Cobb. “Four hundred and fifty million dollars is a pretty good deal. We can’t spend money that liberally in the city of Atlanta. We are fiscal conservatives here. The folks are putting up $450 million? Congratulations to them.”
To no doubt pre-empt the slew of Open Records requests City Hall is currently fielding, his spokesperson, Carlos Campos, handed out at the end of the press conference the timeline of negotiations with the Braves. I counted the word “lukewarm” twice in descriptions of the Braves’ reaction to various proposals made by City Hall. Lead negotiations on behalf of the city appeared to go back and forth between Hans Utz and COO Farooqui, which couldn’t have left the Braves feeling very loved. At one point, the timeline says, “At end of March, Hans writes a memo to Duriya stating that the Braves need high-level attention immediately.”
Oops. As sanguine as Reed came across at the press conference, one wonders if heads will roll behind closed doors.