Reed to Braves: Sale of Turner Field crucial to keeping Hawks

The dirt hadn’t yet settled Tuesday at a groundbreaking of the Atlanta Braves’ “SunTrust Park” in Cobb County when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed uncorked plans of his own — finding a new owner for the embattled Atlanta Hawks.

In a hastily called meeting with reporters, Reed pledged to keep the NBA team — rocked by recent racially-charged controversy — inside the city limits. But in doing so, he ratcheted up the ongoing drama between his office and the Braves by linking the city’s ability to keep the Hawks in Atlanta with the uncertainty of when the baseball club will exit Turner Field.

In remarks certain to steal some of the Braves thunder, Reed said finding a new controlling owner for the Hawks could require financial help from the city. Selling Turner Field, Reed says, could provide those funds.

But Reed said the city can’t easily sell the 77-acre site to developers without knowing when the Braves plan to vacate The Ted. Fulton County leaders must also approve any land sale.

Per their contract, the Braves have until the end of 2015 to notify the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority whether the team wants a five-year lease extension.

“We have hosted the Braves for 49 years. I don’t think it’s being unreasonable to ask for negotiating an exit in an expeditious fashion,” Reed said on Tuesday. “…For some reason we can’t get an honest answer on a departure date. This series of events makes that more important because we’ve had multiple offers to buy the Turner Field property, which could be used to address this situation without adding a burden to taxpayers.”

In late June, Reed and recreation authority chairman James Hughes sent Braves executives a letter requesting an exit date.

The team replied that Braves President John Schuerholz would speak with city leaders and ultimately had a meeting in early August, team spokeswoman Beth Marshall said. The Braves are waiting to hear back from the city following that meeting, she said.

“As has been made public before, the Braves are not contractually bound to notify the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority of our plans until Dec. 31, 2015,” she said. “However it is our hope to be able to work with them, the City of Atlanta and Fulton County, on negotiating an exit so they can best prepare for the future of the Turner Field site.”

Relations between the Braves and Reed have been tepid at best since the team’s stunning announcement last fall to relocate to Cobb County by 2017.

In the months since, the mayor has worked to secure a future for the downtown land and has even voiced support for a $300 million proposal by Georgia State University and a team of developers to build a university sports complex and mixed-use development.

Reed used Tuesday’s press conference to allay fears of the Hawks leaving town, but he also seized the controversy as an opportunity to pressure the Braves to make their plans known.

Reed said he called a press conference Tuesday — the same day as the Braves groundbreaking — because he was traveling in China last week during much of the Hawks’ controversy. The inner dysfunction of the Hawks franchise made national headlines in the past week and a half after a part-owner’s racially-charged email and a separate executive’s remarks came to light.

City spokeswoman Anne Torres confirmed the city decided on Tuesday morning to hold the press conference, but said suggestions the office was attempting to distract from the Braves’ celebration were “ridiculous.”

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Staff writer Chris Vivlamore contributed to this report.