For more than half a century, the Atlanta Braves have rented a prime chunk of property just south of Downtown. To accommodate this prized tenant, city and county officials have demolished entire blocks, proffered tax breaks, rerouted roads, and constructed not one but two massive stadiums. It’s not been enough. Today the Braves announced they will leave Atlanta proper – and move twelve miles up the freeway to Cobb County, hosting opening day 2017 in a brand new ballpark.
The bombshell announcement — delivered via an awkward video statement by team president John Schuerholz — seems to have taken everyone by surprise, from those who live near the Braves’ current home, Turner Field, to the legion of local and national reporters assigned to cover pro sports. Even the mayor, who this year successfully wrangled a deal to keep the Atlanta Falcons from trekking to the suburbs, was barely in the loop; according to a late-morning press conference with Braves officials, Kasim Reed was told of the relocation plans last Thursday, which, it should be noted, was just forty-eight hours after citywide elections.
For his part, Reed appears to be ready to wave the team off. “I wish them well,” he said in a statement released today. The mayor who expended months of his time and mountains of political capital keeping the Atlanta Falcons happy said that Cobb County offered the team $450 million in public funds and “we are simply unwilling to match that with taxpayer dollars.”
That resignation is surprising given that the city spent a year preparing for the Braves’ lease negotiation talks. In late 2012, with the Braves’ lease coming up for renewal and the area around the ballpark economically stagnant, the city’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta, solicited ideas for redeveloping the fifty-five acres of parking lots that surround Turner Field. The idea was that some kind of mixed-use development would revitalize an area that has been fiscally depressed — and taken for granted by many of the city leaders — for even longer than the Braves have been in Atlanta. (You can read the complex and often perplexing back story of the stadium neighborhoods in my feature “The Other 284 Days,” from our July 2013 issue.) Over the spring, ideas were submitted to Invest Atlanta, and the city and Braves reportedly had some meetings. But from what I’ve been told today by people close to the discussions, the full stakeholder sit downs — with City Hall, Invest Atlanta, the Fulton County Recreation Authority, leaders of nearby neighborhoods, and the Braves — never took place. In the meantime, Tyrone Rachal, who was leading the project, is no longer with Invest Atlanta. The agency appears to be in flux, without even an up-to-date website.
The Braves were frustrated by restrictions on developing the property near Turner Field, which is owned by the city and county. Relations between the team and recreation authority were further frayed by the failed Fanplex entertainment complex. And for the past two decades, as part of a deal negotiated at the time of the Olympics, the Braves have given a percentage of their parking revenue to three neighborhood community organizations, an arrangement with little built-in oversight and even less to show for it; anyone who’s wandered Georgia Avenue on a non game day knows that, except for the baseball team, there’s little business in the area. For decades, the best way to make money near Turner Field has been to keep your lot vacant and rent it out for parking during home games.
Micah Rowland, who chairs the city Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) that includes the stadium area, says he learned about the Braves’ decision to relocate today in the same way most of us did – the news. “I’m not shocked that it’s happened,” he said. “Money was being squandered and the Braves didn’t want to be part of it,” he added of the existing community arrangement with the team. The protracted and public debate over the Atlanta Falcons new stadium and its arrangements with the adjoining neighborhoods probably didn’t help much, either he said, while concluding that “numerous issues” contributed to the team’s decision to move.
As someone who lives and owns property in Mechanicsville, which abuts the western edge of Turner Field, Rowland says he is not sure that the Braves’ departure is necessarily negative. “I don’t know. It may be a good thing. Our issues were tied to the Braves parking; it devastated our communities.” Without the crush of fan parking on limited days of the year, the area could be developed with more year-round use in mind.
Douglas Dean, a longtime activist in Summerhill, which surrounds the ballpark, formerly represented the area in the statehouse and sat on the Recreation Authority board. He also learned of the Braves’ move today. “The Recreation Authority had an obligation to tell us; whether they knew and wanted to hold out until after the election, I don’t know,” he said. “This was a well kept secret … but the public had the right to know.” But, said Dean, he doesn’t believe that the move is final. “It’s a ploy,” he said. “They saw what the city was giving the Falcons, and they wanted a part of it.”
It’s impossible to look at the team’s relocation plans without raising the questions of race and class that play into discussions about most big public projects like sports venues, which often are built in areas populated by lower-income and/or minority citizens. Construction of the new Falcons arena involves relocating two historic black churches. Negotiations with its neighbors — who like those near Turner Field saw no great benefits from the Georgia Dome — drag on.
While it took the city by surprise, the Braves obviously put some effort into the announcement. They rolled out a website — homeofthebraves.com — touting their plans for a new facility with “entertainment options, green space and a place to go 365 days a year.” The Braves claim that the new location puts them closer to the “geographic center” of their fan base, i.e. white, middle-class suburbanites. The team touts “a variety of other transportation options” at the Cobb site, although the county does not support MARTA.
Brooks Mathis of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, which helped to scout locations for the team, said that the Braves join other local business in that slice of Cobb with “an Atlanta address and the lower tax rate of unincorporated Cobb.” After all, the Atlanta Opera relocated to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, which also is where the Atlanta Ballet now stages most of its performances. Big “hometown” names like the Home Depot, the Weather Channel, and NAPA Auto Parts, will be the teams’ new neighbors. “The Braves, being a business, are doing what’s best for their business,” Mathis said.
Perhaps it’s the businesslike nature of the agreement – and its announcement – that disheartens Braves fans the most. “A true baseball fan as I once was can no longer afford to invest emotional equity in a sports team,” said Lee Walburn, a former Atlanta Journal sports writer who served as the Braves director of public relations and promotions from 1962 to 1972 (and editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine for fifteen years before retiring in 2002). “When I was growing up, the players played for the same team. The team stayed where it always was.” Now baseball is dictated by the demands of corporate ownership.
The Braves are just one unit of Liberty Media, a company whose holdings include Sirius XM and Barnes & Noble. “There can never be that sense of community as it was when Ted Turner owned it. That really was the only time in the Atlanta Braves existence that you had the feeling — as with Arthur Blank and the Falcons — a sense of community spirit. I don’t think you can have that when you have outside corporate ownership,” said Walburn.
That corporate dynamic will be underscored when the Braves play in their new stadium, which will not be called Turner Field. Even ballpark’s namesake and feisty former team owner seems resigned to the new business of baseball. Asked for reaction to the announcement, Turner gave us this statement through his publicist: “When Time Warner merged with AOL in 2001, the Atlanta Braves were part of the merger package, and later acquired by Liberty Media Corporation. I am no longer part of the company and have not been involved in the decision making since 2001. I just hope the Braves will be happy in their new location and continue their winning ways.”
Except, as we all see every October, winning is no sure thing, either.