Will Atlanta’s leaders show the spirit needed to keep the Braves in the city

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.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

17 replies
  1. Reinvent_ED says:

    There is nothing the Atlanta leaders can do at this time.  It’s not like the Braves are moving to Canada or something!   The Braves made a business decision and they have to let the process play out in Cobb County.  It aint over till it’s over.  But the Braves are focused on their deal with Cobb and rightly so.   Why is this like the end of the world?  They’re moving 14 miles from downtown.Report

  2. JohnAdcox says:

    You know, that former site of the Georgia Dome would make a terrific new home for the Braves, and accessible from two MARTA stations. That would bring plenty of development incentive for some of the surrounding area, as well. Any reason why the city can’t make a sweetheart deal on the land?Report

  3. wolfgator says:

    Thank you the excellnt recap of the spirit of united forward thinking that went into both the original stadium and the ted. You were way too kind in your characterization of the embarrassing effort put forth by our mayor in the current negotiation. Name one second tier city in the US that currently does not have a professional sports franchise that does not have attracting a professional sports franchise as their top economic development initiative – there are none – they all want a professional sports team in their town. Our mayor just gave away our most cherished team, the one that earlier generations of Atlantans worked the hardest for.Report

  4. John Hutcheson says:

    Hi Maria:
    This is a nice piece, but … because of some of the comments I’ve made about the AJC recently, I need to recommend Jay Bookman’s article in today’s AJC which captures the essence of the problems in city and regional politics — better yet for those of you are younger — take a look at Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics, Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988 (now a classic in the urban politics literature).
    John HutchesonReport

  5. PatrickSullivan1 says:

     Atlanta’s “business leaders” all live up in Cobb County now and are/were chairmen of the ARC (see Tad Leithead).  Also, we all  saw how much clout those same “business leaders” had during the TSPLOST debacle a year ago.
    What I’m trying to say is that the old “Atlanta Way” appears to be dead and buried – what will take its place is the real question.Report

  6. PatrickSullivan1 says:

    John Hutcheson  Do you live in the Atlanta Metro area?  Didn’t you see what happened when we tried to fix the transportation issues in this town with the TSPLOST vote?  
    Cobb County has no interest whatsoever in public transportation to the proposed stadium site, but don’t take my word for it, just ask Joe Dendy, the Cobb Co. GOP chairman….Report

  7. Reinvent_ED says:

    PatrickSullivan1 Reinvent_ED I was waiting someone to try and claim I don’t live in the area – YES,  I LIVE in the Metro Area.  The TSPLOST vote was orchestrated quite poorly.   As I said, the devil is in the details, and bottom line is that this deal, if you took the time to read it, embeds the Braves in the community.  They are NOT tenants anymore.  This deal should force the area to fix its transportation issues.Report

  8. Burroughston Broch says:

    Hizzoner the Mayor decided to give the Falcons and Arthur Blank whatever they wanted, and to turn a deaf ear toward the Braves. Since the Braves drew more fans and provided more income for the City of Atlanta than the Falcons, we should assume the political decision includes a big quid pro quo for Hizzoner from the Falcons.
    Now, Hizzoner wants to tear down Turner Field and build a multi-use complex similar to what the Braves plan in Cobb County. The Braves and Cobb County are moving ahead while Hizzoner is just talking grandstanding. Smart money says the Braves and Cobb County succeed while the City of Atlanta eventually reinvents something like Fanplex.Report

  9. John Hutcheson says:

    There is a fundamental problem with the way the City has been run for many years — the current mayor’s mistake was thinking that he could use the ‘same old buddy-buddy business and politics’ approach that has been used in the past. This worked, or at least it worked for the business community, when we had Rich’s, Allen’s, the Harland Company, locally-owned banks and people like Ted, who had some stake in the local community. Maynard Jackson was the only mayor to depart from this paradigm of local control (remember Neighborhood Planning), and actually began to regress back to the ‘Atlanta Way’ model of doing things in his later years as mayor. His successors have all been cut from the same mold — scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours – and maybe the public wouldn’t find out what’s going on. Don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of these people are very well intended — it’s just that they think that that’s the best way to get things done — and, as long as some good things get done the public wouldn’t vote them out of office.   
    Let me use a state-level example to illustrate why this is so wrong-headed. The governor is proclaiming victory since Georgia has been ranked the #1 state in creating a  ‘business-friendly’ environment. I’d agree with that ranking. The problem is, today, being a ‘business-friendly’ environment appears to be inversely related to a ‘people-friendly’ environment — because large corporations have no stake but short term profit in the communities they invade. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about locally-owned business, family  businesses, etc. I’m talking about faceless corporations that can’t see beyond next quarter’s profits — because that’s what it’s manager’s are paid for — where deals are made beyond public view and under the table, by people who like to equate their interests with that of the public. Here’s the point — while the State of Georgia has been becoming more and more business friendly, the public has been becoming poorer and poorer. In 1995, Georgia ranked 24 among the states in Per Capita Personal Income, in 2001 it was 25th, in 2006 it was 28th, in 2010 it was 37th, and in 2012 it was 40th.
    The question is of course, since the State is doing so well in ‘business-friendliness’ who profits? It is certainly not the people of Georgia. The same is true of a city or region. Public decisions should be made in public — for the public.
    John HutchesonReport


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