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Atlanta is long known for favoring the new to the old, a fast-moving, profit-focused city that has traditionally bulldozed historic buildings for those more shiny and modern.
But to condemn both a domed football stadium and a baseball park to the wrecking ball after only two decades is over the top, even for our upscale-minded capital.
First, the Atlanta Falcons deemed the 20-year-old Georgia Dome obsolete because they can’t keep pace with billionaire NFL owners outdoing each other with bigger, fancier, more ornate cathedrals for football. They seek not just a nicer place to play but a cash source for luxury seating, parking, concessions and advertising.
Just as a deal to build such an edifice was completed, the Atlanta Braves dropped a bombshell last week, announcing they would move to Cobb County because Turner Field, built originally for the 1996 Olympics, is hard to reach and stuck in a run-down area of town. So like many Atlanta residents over five decades, they will pack up their tomahawks and division pennants and flee for the suburbs at the juncture of Interstates 285 and 75, where a big tract of land waits to be developed.
Many questioned Atlanta for putting all of its eggs in the Falcons’ basket, yet other than timing, Mayor Kasim Reed’s reasoning makes sense. The dome deal is paid for by the team, the NFL and the state hotel tax. And the proposed facility, with its glass-encased origami design, will be used for other events like college football bowls and basketball Final Fours, perhaps a future Super Bowl, all of which the city hopes will bring visitors and money downtown.
The Braves are a different matter. Turner Field is a first-rate ballpark the Braves would happily keep if they could jack it up, drop it on a flatbed and plant it in a better location. Like the old stadium before it, the Ted sits in a dreary area difficult to reach by highway and more than a mile from the closest MARTA station, a fact no one has ever explained. The team wants its park in a mixed-use area with shops, restaurants and hotels, which will never happen in sad Summerhill.
The Cobb stadium, estimated to cost $672 billion, would be funded by $300 million in public financing paid by a combination of bonds, tax surcharges on hotels and rental cars and a tax on businesses in the area. Of course, such costs eventually will be passed on to consumers. And while Cobbites may not see an immediate property tax hike, that debt will be on their backs. One wonders how eager they are to take on this load.
The Braves are picking up the rest of the price, but according to an article in Forbes, their sale of the naming rights alone might cover most or all of their portion. So they get another free ballpark. Nice deal.
Had Atlanta bit on the project, it would be on the hook for all of that public money with little or no state help. Plus there’s no guarantee the city could find an accessible site to meet the Braves’ desire for nearby development.
However, there was much scoffing when the Braves said the move would alleviate traffic concerns. True, getting in and out of the Ted is a hassle, as with all venues in a city that has outgrown its quaint, tree-lined avenues. But anyone who travels the I-75-285 corridors knows they are no picnic to navigate. Add rush hour traffic — games start at 7 to 7:30 p.m. — and you’ll have traffic snarls that could make the downtown connector look like Six Flags bumper cars in comparison.
The Braves say the move is natural because most tickets are sold in the northern suburbs. Though a nearby park might be convenient to fans in Cobb — provided they can get out of their driveways — North Fulton and perhaps Forsyth, it is not an easier jaunt from Gwinnett, Barrow, Rockdale, DeKalb, Henry or Hall. What was a straight shot to the connector will become a funnel through Spaghetti Junction along the highly traveled top end perimeter.
Keep in mind economists are uncertain how much money a city actually earns by having big league teams. While the hospitality industry and others benefit, there are expenses that can make it a wash. The added value is more in civic pride than measurable dollars.
Should tax dollars go to replace perfectly good ballparks, just to help Arthur Blank and Liberty Media get richer? Will that money be spent to win championships? They have all of one between them, so that clearly wasn’t the case the last time they got new homes a few years ago.
We’re just as skeptical on the always-promised development around the new structures. A village of shops and eateries promised for both the Dome and the Ted never materialized. Whether they will for the new Birds Nest or Big Chicken Diamond remains iffy.
Regardless, it’s time cities stopped being held up by sports teams seeking new palaces. Today the paint barely fades on a stadium — the debt on it still unpaid — before it’s called out of date, with taxpayers eating the cost. Our entertainment-craved society created this monster by putting sports on a pedestal that must be raised ever higher, at great expense, to keep teams, leagues, players and TV networks obscenely wealthy. Meanwhile, schools, roads and other needs often go underfunded.
To stop this carousel of overindulgence requires a government to some day say, “No. You have a fine ballpark. Fix it up if you like, and we’ll pave the roads around it, but you’re on your own.”
Yet that’s not likely to happen as long as there is a Cobb County waiting up the highway with welcoming arms. But all beware: When those 30-year deals expire in 2047, don’t be surprised when the Braves and Falcons start looking around again for greener pastures.