By Maria Saporta
Regionalism in metro Atlanta is such a tough concept to grasp.
It is not about each county or city government having its own international airport, its own professional sports stadium or its own water and sewer system.
Regionalism is about investing in regional assets that serve the entire 10-county or 20-county region.
Several of our top elected officials seem to be confused these days about the benefits of having a regional mindset. Their minds have become absorbed with thoughts of elevating their own government or what they think will best serve their own future political careers rather than looking at the true regional cost of their actions.
As a result, we as a region may be on the precipice of making an unwise regional decision to build a new Braves baseball stadium in Cobb County.
Why? Because the Atlanta region was given a state-of the art baseball stadium — tax free — during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. In fact Atlanta has been applauded as a model Olympic city for having provided an afterlife for most of our major Olympic venues.
Better yet, our Olympic stadium was designed with the full intention of having it converted into a baseball stadium specifically designed for the Atlanta Braves after the 1996 Games.
Turner Broadcasting System, then the owner of the Atlanta Braves, paid about $50 million to convert the Olympic stadium into Turner Field so that baseball fans could have a beautiful view of the city’s skyline as they watched the Braves play in the Atlanta sunshine. Again, this was a gift to the region with virtually no tax money involved.
Looking back, perhaps the stadium should have been turned over to a regional entity to reflect the true asset of a professional baseball stadium to the Atlanta region. Instead, the ownership of Turner Field belongs to the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority.
That has proven to be one of the key reasons why the owners of the Atlanta Braves have decided to abandon Turner Field — their home for the past 17 years on the site where they have been since they moved to Atlanta in 1966.
But a move to Cobb would have been unnecessary if we only knew how to act like a region and govern in a business-like manner. After all, the first choice of the Atlanta Braves had been to renew their lease at Turner Field. The Braves, however, wanted to be able to operate out of Turner Field without the interference of the Recreation Authority.
All this talk of regionalism (and the misstatements of what it means) have taken me back to 1997 when top metro Atlanta business, civic and government leaders went to Denver on the first regional LINK trip — an annual effort to bring the region closer together.
Then-Cobb County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne told me a story of how he had tried to broker a deal four years earlier with the City of Atlanta’s Mayor Maynard Jackson to jointly plan an expansion of their water and sewer treatment systems.
Cobb was building a nine-mile sewer tunnel system along the Chattahoochee River from East Cobb to South Cobb and the City of Atlanta was doing the same thing on the other side of the river.
Both governments also had to expand their sewage treatment plants — Cobb’s R.L. Sutton sewage treatment plant and Atlanta’s R.M. Clayton plant — directly across the Chattahoochee River from each other.
“We tried to promote a joint treatment facility between Cobb and Atlanta. It was a duplication of services and certainly a duplication of cost,” Byrne said Monday remembering the failed attempt at regional cooperation. “It never materialized.”
Ironically, LINK was touring Denver — where we were able to visit the $215 million Coors Field, the city’s new downtown baseball stadium where the Colorado Rockies had begun playing in 1995.
Voters in the six-county metro area paid for Coors Field with a 1/10th of a cent sales tax increase. The only county to vote down the tax was Denver where the stadium was built because voters were concerned about paying for yet another infrastructure cost. But there was enough regional support, so the tax passed.
“At the end of the day, everybody wanted to see baseball,” Ray Baker, chairman of the Metro Stadium District Authority, told the LINK delegation at the time.
Since then, the Denver region has been building out its light rail transit system, and today, Coors Field is served by at least three light rail stations within a mile of the stadium (one is only .4 miles away).
My friends in metro Atlanta — that is regionalism.
When we talk about sharing the cost of our region’s infrastructure, that does not mean duplicating an existing stadium that was built tax free by building a new $672 million stadium14 miles away that will cost Cobb County taxpayers at least $300 million in an already traffic-congested area with no rail transit and no plans for rail transit.
That is not regionalism. That is one county government looking out for its own self interest at the expense of another government that wasn’t able to get its act together to keep the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
There are so many layers of irony here.
Before a project list was put together for the regional transportation sales tax vote on July 31, 2012, a survey was done to find out which transportation projects among metro Atlanta residents would have the greatest regional support.
The most popular one by far was to extend MARTA or improved transit access to Turner Field — probably top on the Atlanta Braves’ wish list as well. But that never made it on the project list, and of course the regional sales tax failed.
Because for so many reasons, we still haven’t figured out how to think and act like a region.