By Maria Saporta
How passionately Atlanta leaders respond to last week’s news that the Braves plan to abandon Turner Field for Cobb County will signal if Atlanta’s spirit lives on.
One only has to go back in history to the mid 1960s when the original Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was built — primarily with the tenacity of then-Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and the business community.
Or we could go back to the mid 1990s when the City of Atlanta was given a brand new Olympic Stadium that was transformed into Turner Field for the Atlanta Braves at virtually no cost to taxpayers.
Throughout their 47-year history in Atlanta, the Braves have helped transformed the identity of what kind of city we are and want to be. But what will happen if the City of Atlanta loses the Braves to a suburban county? Will our psyche (and our economic development potential) be damaged by such a move?
Let’s go back in time.
Mayor Allen, who had a “platform for progress” for Atlanta, believed that attracting a major league baseball team and building a stadium would launch Atlanta into the big leagues.
“The real symbol of the new Atlanta — the single structure that signified our arrival as a national city — was Atlanta Stadium…,” Allen wrote in his book — Mayor: Notes on the Sixties.
Working with Mills B. Lane, CEO of Citizens & Southern National Bank, Allen was able to get the $18 million stadium built in just 51 weeks. The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966. The National Football League expanded a new team in Atlanta later that same year.
Years later Allen would say they had built the stadium “on land we didn’t own, with money we didn’t have, for teams we didn’t know.”
The 1960s were a turning point for Atlanta as it entered the national arena. In addition to becoming a city with professional sports and a multi-use stadium, Atlanta had developed the reputation of being a tolerant city for people of different races. Again, Mayor Allen and the business community played a major role in setting that tone.
When Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Coca-Cola magnate Robert Woodruff made sure the Civil Rights leader was not snubbed at a gala dinner in his honor.
So it was with that “we can all get along” spirit that Atlanta welcomed home run king Hank Aaron to the city along with the Atlanta Braves.
During 1973 and 1974, Aaron received death threats as he came closer to beating the home run record of Babe Ruth — a feat he accomplished on April 8, 1974 hitting his 715th home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, in calling the home run, addressed the racial atmosphere of the moment as well as his impression of Atlanta:
“What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
Of course the stadium where Hank Aaron made history was demolished in 1997 after Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
A novel solution had been worked out where the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games would build an Olympic Stadium for $235 million (not costing the City of Atlanta or Fulton County a dime).
Then after the Olympics, the owner of the Atlanta Braves — then Turner Broadcasting System — would spend $50 million (again no tax money would be spent) to convert the Olympic stadium into a state-of-the-art baseball stadium — Turner Field.
At the time when that decision was being made, then Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and then Fulton County Commission Chairman Martin Luther King III insisted that the Olympic Stadium be located in same area as the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium — wanting to be sure that the communities south of downtown would not be left behind.
In both decades — the 1960s and the 1990s, top city business and government leaders were closely engaged in making sure they did everything they could to have a home for the Atlanta Braves.
For whatever reason, in 2013, Atlanta leaders did not give the Braves that same attention — perhaps thinking they had more time to iron out a deal. But the Braves had let it be known they wanted to have an agreement worked out by the end of 2013 even though their lease didn’t run out until the end of 2016.
That should have been a clue. The only explanation for wanting to get an agreement done three years early would be to have enough time to build a new stadium in another location.
Up until this summer, when the Braves began holding discussions with officials in Cobb County, the baseball team representatives were anxious to renegotiate their lease at Turner Field.
Now that the Atlanta Braves have announced plans to move to Cobb and build a $672 million stadium near I-75 and I-285, that window may have closed.
Still some at the City of Atlanta are not giving up. Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond introduced a paper saying the city is willing to provide significant funding to keep the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
The Braves have said Turner Field will need $150 million in general maintenance and another $200 million to enhance the fans’ experience at the stadium over the next 30 years. That comes to a total of $350 million. Bond said the city received hotel-motel taxes that goes directly into its general fund that could be reallocated to help with the upkeep of Turner Field. The city also might be willing to satisfy several of the other issues that were important to the Braves.
At this point, it might not even be a matter of money. According to the financial plans released by Cobb County, the Braves would be contributing at least $370 million to cover their portion of the new stadium — more than the total price tag they said was needed at Turner Field.
So if it’s not money?
Try a little love and tenderness. And maybe say we’re sorry for the way we acted. We’re sorry if we took you for granted.
It’s time for Atlanta’s top business and government leaders to extend an open hand to the Braves organization and its owners — letting them know it’s just as important today as it was in the 1960s and the 1990s — to keep the Atlanta Braves in the City of Atlanta.