By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on November 15, 2013
When it comes to new stadium negotiations, the Atlanta Braves and Cobb County officials are in the early innings of what could be a long game.
And given all the unknowns that exist — specifically regarding financing, congestion and the “optics” of such a move — a possibility exists (as slim as it may be) that the Braves could end up staying at Turner Field after all.
Given the conclusive way the Braves presented the Cobb stadium deal to the public, it is obvious that this is not a negotiating ploy to get a better deal in Atlanta. The Braves have every intention to build a new stadium in Cobb County in time for opening day in 2017.
And it is also true that the Atlanta Braves first tried to work out a deal with the city of Atlanta to stay at Turner Field, but the team decided the outstanding issues were “insurmountable,” according to Mike Plant, Braves’ executive vice president of business operations who led the negotiations.
That said, the building of a new stadium in Cobb County is far from being a done deal.
Among the issues that could stymie the deal include how Cobb County residents and businesses will react to the financing structure of the stadium deal. As of press time Nov. 13, it was not yet known what portion of the project will be publicly financed and where those dollars will come from. What is known is that Cobb County is a key base of the Tea Party, and it has never been a tax-friendly county.
Transportation issues also are a concern. The county did not approve MARTA back in 1971, and residents opposed a light rail line as one of the projects in last year’s regional transportation referendum.
Already the stadium has been referred to as a “Trojan horse” to bring rail into Cobb. The county’s Republican Party chairman, Joe Dendy, was quoted as saying: “It is absolutely necessary the [transportation] solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”
Those kind of statements can have racial overtones — probably not the kind of image the team of baseball legend Hank Aaron would like to have in its new home.
At his Nov. 12 press conference, it almost sounded as though Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was anticipating the Cobb County deal to go through some rough innings — perhaps giving the city another opportunity to keep the Braves at Turner Field.
The mayor said that he knows from firsthand experience with the Atlanta Falcons stadium that getting voters to support public funding for a new stadium can be a difficult process.
“If they don’t go forward in Cobb, we will be right here,” Reed said. “I want to send an unmistakable message — that we want the Braves in Atlanta.”
Members of the Atlanta City Council took it a step further — holding their own press conference just after the mayor’s press conference.
City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said he felt “great disappointment” with the Braves’ announcement. Carla Smith, who represents the district that includes Turner Field, said: “It saddens me that we are at this juncture.”
But it was City Councilman Michael Julian Bond who made a direct appeal to the Braves to say at Turner Field. He was born in 1966, the same year the Braves moved to Atlanta.
“I can’t imagine an Atlanta without the Braves,” said Bond, who along with his colleagues asked for a briefing with the mayor and with officials from the Braves.
And he disagreed with the wait-and-see tactics proposed by the mayor.
“I don’t know how wise it is for us to wait for Cobb to act,” Bond said, adding the city needed to put together a package before the Cobb County Commission took action.
During the press conferences, the mayor and council members were asked about specific issues that the Braves had wanted the city to address.
“That’s a place with the Braves we could have gotten to,” Reed said.
The Braves had asked the city to participate financially in the maintenance and the refurbishment of Turner Field over the next 20 years. The mayor balked at the idea of the city contributing $200 million to $250 million — saying the city had a backlog of infrastructure needs. But later the mayor said the city would have been able to contribute at some level.
Councilman Bond said the city receives a dedicated portion of the hotel-motel taxes that currently goes into its general fund. He said some of those dollars could be allocated to Turner Field as a way to protect the city’s tourism and convention industry.
The Atlanta business community also might be willing to play a role in keeping the Braves at Turner Field. Some of the top sponsors of the Braves include Atlanta’s leading corporate players — The Coca-Cola Co., Georgia Power Co., The Home Depot Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc.
The issue of environmental sustainability and smart land use has become increasingly important for those corporations. Building a major new attraction about 10 miles away from the nearest rail transit station on a greenfield site while possibly tearing down a relatively new stadium in an urban location a mile away from transit goes counter to current development trends.
It is not known whether there will be some kind of concerted effort to appeal to the owner of the Atlanta Braves — Liberty Media Corp., which is based in Englewood, Colo. Its chairman is John Malone, who was a major owner of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and who recently surpassed Ted Turner as the largest individual landowner in the Untied States.
This actually is not the first time an Atlanta sports team has announced plans to move to the suburbs.
“We concluded inescapably that the Hawks will not be able to compete long term in the Omni,” Kasten said. “Our doors are open, but we’ve analyzed this pretty hard, and we don’t think that there is a solution that will work downtown.”
Then-Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell immediately appealed to Hawks owner Ted Turner’s civic spirit. At a charity dinner in Buckhead soon after, the two huddled and Turner emerged singing the Emma Bunton song “Downtown.” He then told Kasten and the rest of Atlanta that he wanted the Hawks to stay downtown. The Omni was torn down, replaced by Philips Arena.
Certainly Atlanta has changed since the mid-1990s. The Atlanta Braves are no longer locally owned, and there are a whole new set of players among the city’s top business and government leaders.
When Mike Plant of the Braves was asked Nov. 12 if he would be willing to meet with members of the Atlanta City Council, he said he would meet with a few of them, but he didn’t want to have a large public forum.
Asked if there were any possibility that the Braves could change its mind and reopen negotiations with the city of Atlanta, Plant made it clear that the team had moved on.
“We are here for the next three years,” Plant said. “We are just focused on finishing up our deal with Cobb County at this point.”
The game still has several innings to go.
Staff writer Amy Wenk contributed to this story.