The announcement came out of nowhere. On Nov. 11, the Atlanta Braves confirmed that, after playing professional baseball just a few blocks from Downtown since 1966, the team had decided to pack its bags and move to Cobb County for opening day 2017. The ball club would start a new season in a new home at the same time as the Atlanta Falcons.
At first, the news seemed like a strategic leak to pressure the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, which owns and operates Turner Field, and other city officials to acquiesce to the franchise's demands for greater investment in and around the sports facility. But within hours, a brand-new website promoting the proposed athletic complex overlooking interstates 285 and 75 near Cumberland Mall appeared. The OTP site is an untapped 60-acre swath of woods smack-dab in the heart of sprawl, tucked between the two highways, and miles from any MARTA stop. County officials first must approve the nearly $672 million deal - and potentially face the wrath of their vocal, anti-tax constituency - before their coup is complete. But if approved, the deal would leave a hole in Atlanta's fabric that for decades has been occupied by baseball.
The team would still be called the Atlanta Braves and keep an Atlanta mailing address though it would be located outside the city limits. Team President John Schuerholz said in a scripted video message that the new stadium would be one of "the most magnificent in all of baseball." But the deal, hatched in secret, comes with myriad questions. And while the Braves would still serve Atlantans, the organization would be abandoning Summerhill, Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, and the stadium's other surrounding southeast Atlanta neighborhoods that were walloped and uplifted, depending on your perspective, for 81 days each year. Mayor Kasim Reed is wishing the team well on its journey but it's uncertain what fate awaits the city without the team that's been part of its identity for so long.
Braves executives say they decided to move because of "insurmountable" transit and development issues; that fans couldn't easily access Turner Field despite its proximity to I-20 and the Downtown Connector and available MARTA shuttle service from Underground Atlanta and Georgia State University. The franchise also claims it couldn't develop the surrounding area to suit its needs. Finally, officials say the new stadium would be closer to the bulk of its ticket holders, which are predominantly located in the north metro area, according to the Braves' ticket sales data.
Cobb officials enticed the Braves with an alluring offer — which wasn't finalized until days after the announcement — that would cover approximately 45 percent of the stadium's estimated $672 million cost using a combination of local cash, including car rental and hotel and motel taxes, and $14 million in transportation funds. Also on the list: nearly $9 million each year plucked from existing tax revenues. All told, taxpayers in the conservative county would be on the hook for $300 million, with the team covering the rest. The Cobb County Commission must still approve the deal at its Nov. 26 meeting. Braves officials have "secured," but not yet purchased, wooded property that would become the site of the proposed stadium and an encompassing mixed-use entertainment district, a team spokeswoman told CL last week. Schuerholz said the complex, a few minutes away from the Cobb Galleria Centre, Cumberland Mall, and Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, will "thrive with action 365 days a year" and provide a "first-rate gameday experience."
From a business perspective, the answer was simple. Braves executives had the option of enjoying a brand-new facility in Cobb or finding a way to divvy up the estimated $150 million worth of needed infrastructure repairs to the Ted, including new seats and lighting. Yet Schuerholz said those improvements weren't enough. The franchise decided to travel north on congested I-75 for several acres of forest, or what it considers greener pastures.
Without a confirmed deal, Cobb County heavy hitters, including Chairman Tim Lee, who worked in secret since July to broker the relocation deal with the county's chamber of commerce, have proclaimed victory, posing on the front page of the Marietta Daily Journal in Braves jerseys and clutching baseball bats, putting an official face on the urban-suburban tension that has existed for decades. Most recently it reared its head during the 2012 transportation tax campaign.
Cobb, a prosperous county — the annual median income, according to the most recent U.S. Census, is $65,423 — is just on the other side of the Chattahoochee River but politically is a world away. Residents of the conservative stronghold, which is becoming more diverse as Atlanta grows more white, were expected to show opposition to the notion of helping a billionaire's professional sports team build a stadium. Especially after balancing the county's education budget with teacher layoffs and furloughs. And according to polls of Cobb voters conducted after the announcement, most welcomed the Braves moving but didn't support public funding to do so. Some have expressed skepticism over the types of jobs the stadium will create, potential transportation issues, and the behind-the-scenes process used to broker the deal. The Tea Party, which was initially silent after the announcement, said on Monday that it would try to derail Cobb's financing deal with telephone and email campaigns urging county commissioners to reject the deal.
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