Hello from Atlanta.
Actually, I'm writing from Cobb County, the proposed future home of the Atlanta Braves. Thus, I'm not talking about the Atlanta that most of Creative Loafing's readers identify with — the one that remains well within the confines of I-285. I'm talking about the part of Georgia where roughly 5.5 million of the state's almost 10 million residents identify with as home. "Atlanta."
The Braves' surprise announcement about the move led intown Atlantans to make a far more liberal interpretation of their home, which caught most outside the Perimeter off guard. There are clearly hurt feelings and ill will from those who live in the real "Atlanta." There have been "unfortunate" statements by some who live outside the city limits and enjoy using the urban core as a whipping post.
But the decision by the Braves, whether or not it comes to fruition, gives us an opportunity to assess where "Atlanta" stands. We are a city that has actually become a region. Cobb's acceptance of the ball club shows that the suburb, and those who live in it, has the capability and resources to act as an equal to the city's core. With this awareness also comes responsibility.
Suburbanites know and understand that "Atlanta" is our brand and, as such, our economic engine. To keep it running smoothly requires proper planning and regular maintenance. Cobb will now likely take on a higher profile role in these areas. And that might involve actually — gulp — linking with Atlanta via an honest-to-goodness transit route.
Cobb, now home to more than 700,000 Georgians, has foreseen a rapidly expanding population for some time. In the early 1990s, with only about 450,000 residents, the county's elected, civic, and business leaders were actively planning to not only accommodate its residential growth, but create infrastructure that could attract the types of industries that contribute to a healthy tax base while requiring minimal government services in return.
At the core of this plan was the creation of the Cumberland Community Improvement District. This self-taxing district has invested heavily in street infrastructure throughout the Cumberland Mall area. During rush hour, the area is easy to commute around. Intown residents would likely be shocked to know that the area is surprisingly walkable — even if the distance between most buildings demonstrates the definition of "suburban sprawl" — compared to other suburbs.
While the Cumberland area can handle vehicular traffic better than most parts of metro Atlanta, it lacks transit like the rest of the suburbs. Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and Cobb Community Transit express buses link the area to Downtown Atlanta and MARTA's network, but there isn't a direct rail connection. Voters most recently rejected this as part of last year's transportation sales tax.
Some residents are quite happy about that. Cobb GOP chairman Joe Dendy told the Marietta Daily Journal that future traffic solutions need to tackle the area's gridlocked primary arteries, which he described as a "nightmare for local commuters." He then unfortunately added that the solutions should be focused on cars traveling from the north and east parts of metro area to games, and "not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta."
With that, the uneasy urban-suburban divide came into the forefront of the stadium debate. A large part of what Cobb leaders are asking its taxpayers to fund hinges on the question of whether the stadium belongs to the entire metro Atlanta region, or just to those who live to the north and to the east — an area where Braves officials say the bulk of their season ticket holders reside.
The business leaders who pay extra as part of the Cumberland CID certainly expect the wider region to continue to attend games. Taxpayers, assuming their leaders agree to the funding mechanism, should expect the same.
They also want intown Atlantans to bring their checkbooks, add to the county's tax digest, and further establish Cobb as a regional destination that people want to visit. Dendy's comments, reprinted in various publications as far reaching as The Economist, are clearly not helpful to that cause.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's inner core has been undergoing a renaissance with both business and residential development for decades. There is an established middle class living within the city. Suburbanites who doubt this need only look to traffic counts on Georgia 400 — many sections of the road designed to bring people to Atlanta for work have heavier morning traffic heading north. These folks tend to be younger, have a higher disposable income, and, regardless of race, are more open to transit. They are the Braves fans of the future that the team needs to cultivate today.
Rail from Atlanta to the Cumberland area in the short term remains prohibitively expensive. Instead, the Midtown-to-Cumberland corridor is likely to get a dedicated line of bus rapid transit — basically, a faster express bus service that rides on dedicated road lanes. It's cheaper to build and more flexible to change a route as development and rider patterns change — and, for some reason, the mode is more acceptable to conservatives. It's also a worthy step toward connecting Cobb with the rest of "Atlanta" as effectively as rail, but at a significantly reduced cost.
If the Braves' move to the suburbs happens, Cobb officials will make the deal knowing it benefits from being part of a large urban area. With that come responsibilities and related costs. How Cobb chooses to handle that, regardless of whether this deal ultimately works or not, will tell us if we all really live in "Atlanta" or not.
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