By Maria Saporta
When the Atlanta Braves representatives were focused on renewing their lease at Turner Field, their overwhelming desire was to be able to control their own destiny.
In short, the Braves would have been happy to stay at Turner Field:
- if they had been able to fully control the stadium’s operations;
- if they had been able to partner in the redevelopment of the parking lots around the stadium into a mixed-use entertainment- residential complex;
- if they had received governmental approvals to develop a privately-funded maglev transit line from the Georgia State University MARTA station to Turner Field; and
- if the City of Atlanta would have contributed to the maintenance and rejuvenation of Turner Field.
Contrary to some reports after Monday’s announcement, the City of Atlanta would not have had to come up with $450 million to match the public funds that Cobb County officials have offered the Atlanta Braves as part of a $672 million stadium deal near the intersection of I-75 and I-285.
For the past couple of years, the Atlanta Braves have been trying to capture the attention of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and his administration.
Although they have held discussions, people close to the Atlanta Braves said team officials were frustrated that the city appeared to be much more focused on getting a deal done with the Atlanta Falcons than with the baseball team.
The Braves even released a new economic impact study several months ago reinforcing the fact that the Atlanta Braves generated more than $100 million in economic impact a year — twice as much as all the other city’s professional sports (Falcons, Hawks, Dream) combined.
By playing 81 games a year and by attracting out-of-town visitors from all over the South — often for several days at a time, the Atlanta Braves would attract millions of fans to Turner Field each year.
But the Braves wanted to feel the love. They didn’t want the City of Atlanta, and to a lesser extent Fulton County, to take them for granted.
Unfortunately, in July, when the City of Atlanta was trying to reach agreements with two black churches sitting on the preferred site of the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, the Atlanta Braves had already identified the 60-acre site in Cobb County and had already started talking to Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee as well as other Cobb officials.
In an interview with the Atlanta Business Chronicle in June, Michael Plant, executive vice president of business operations for the Atlanta Braves, let it be known that the Braves had a timeline — one that they had shared with the city.
“We have got to have a pretty good feeling for how all these pieces fit together by the end of this year,” Plant said about the various issues that were most important to the Braves.
When asked whether the Braves were exploring other locations, Plant answered: “Right now we are focused on doing this deal.”
During that interview, Plant outlined the key issues for the Braves.
“We have to change our operating relationship with the current landlord — the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority,” Plant said at the time.
For Plant, that meant no longer being under the thumb of the Authority — the governmental entity that owns the stadium and the parking lots. The City of Atlanta represents two-thirds of the Authority while Fulton County represents one-third.
From the Braves point of view, the governance structure of the Authority is no longer necessary and only adds another level of bureaucracy (not to mention expenses). And since the Atlanta Braves are a solo tenant in the stadium, from Plant’s point of view, the Braves should have the flexibility to invest in the facility as needed.
Because Turner Field originally was built as the Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Summer Games, Atlanta taxpayers did not have to pay for the facility. Turner Broadcasting System — then the owner of the Atlanta Braves — paid about $50 million to convert the Olympics stadium into a baseball stadium. It signed a 20-year lease that will run out on Dec. 31, 2016.
“It’s the only sports facility in Atlanta that taxpayers didn’t pay for,” Plant said. “We have put almost $130 million of our own money into this facility.”
During the June interview, Plant said the Braves anticipated that a “major renovation” of Turner Field would be needed for the team to re-up for another 20 years. The seats need to be replaced. It will cost about $150 million just to keep the stadium in a state of good repair. Plant also said it would cost millions more to enhance the fans’ experience during games.
“We are willing to take some of our money and invest into our operation,” Plant said during the June interview.
At the Monday press briefing, the Braves said the fan enhancements would cost $200 million in addition to the $150 million in regular maintenance — $350 million over 20 years. By comparison, the Cobb stadium would cost $672 million, of which the Braves said they would contribute $200 million.
That means that if the City of Atlanta could come up with a revenue stream of between $5 million and $10 million a year for the maintenance of Turner Field, it could help bridge that gap.
Just as important to the Braves is what happens to the land around the stadium. Invest Atlanta, the economic development arm of the City of Atlanta, has been seeking proposals from developers to create a mixed-use community around Turner Field.
But the Atlanta Braves had let the city know that they wanted to be a partner in such a development. They did not want a development with restaurants and entertainment venues to end up competing for the Braves fans’ dollars when they could create an overall experience.
Lastly, the Atlanta Braves have repeatedly said that the No. 1 complaint of their fans has been traffic and congestion.
In late July, the Atlanta Braves were in active discussions with Cobb-based American Maglev Technologies to build a pilot transit line connecting MARTA to Turner Field. The $30 million project would have been privately-financed by Grupo ACS, a multibillion-dollar engineering and construction firm based in Madrid.
Plant expected that the Atlanta Braves, Georgia State University, advertising dollars and fares would have paid for the annual operating costs of the energy-efficient, driver-less vehicles.
As Plant said in June: “We are trying to control our own destiny.”
It was obvious at that time that the Atlanta Braves were focused on getting a deal done to stay at Turner Field. But by November, that focus had clearly shifted to Cobb County.
Now the multi-million dollar question is whether City of Atlanta officials will be able to recapture the wandering eyes of the Atlanta Braves and find a way to keep them downtown.