At tense meeting, details of Turner Field future sale revealed

The authority that owns Turner Field unveiled its planned disposition and redevelopment process for the stadium Wednesday night during a tense meeting with hundreds of residents.

Officials with the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority announced that the agency will issue a request for proposals from developers in early October for the 77-acre site.

Speaking to a packed house of more than 200 gathered at the stadium’s 755 Club, the authority’s executive director told neighborhood groups that the sale process must begin in short order as the Atlanta Braves are poised to vacate the ballpark by the end of next year. The cost of upkeep to taxpayers at that time, she said, will be around $5 million annually.

“I don’t stand here as an alarmist. I stand here as a realist. Time is of the essence,” said Keisha Lance Bottoms, with grand views of Turner Field behind her. “This is a 48,000-seat stadium that in 15 months will be empty.”

The move defies requests from many residents to delay the sale until the completion of a community study funded by the Atlanta Regional Commission, a process that could take through next summer.

“Why are we talking about the process of a sale when we haven’t had community input?” said Grace Kim, prior to the meeting. Kim said she is treasurer of the South Atlantans for Neighborhood Development community group and came to support communities located next to Turner Field.

Bottoms said the study and sale process “can run parallel courses” and that the community will continue to have opportunities for input. The recommendations that result from the study, she said, can be incorporated in final negotiations with a future buyer.

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That didn’t sit well with many members of the audience, who applauded loudly when a resident said that local officials have a poor track record of listening to the community. The room was filled with a cross-section of young and old, working class and white collar Atlantans who grew increasingly frustrated during the moderated meeting and interjected often with jeers.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who arrived an hour into the meeting, has expressed support for the study. But he’s also said it should not hold up development of the downtown parcel. Though the authority owns and operates the massive facility, Reed has attempted to take the lead on the sale.

The mayor told residents he’s trying to strike a compromise between their dreams and financial realities.

“We have the balance of making sure that your vision and your voices are heard, and that you are planned with and not planned on,” Reed said. “But we don’t want to lose a quarter of a billion or half a billion dollars of investment. So that’s what we have to go through together.”

Authority board chairman William K. Whitner said the principles that will guide the redevelopment process include: the buyer’s qualifications, the financial benefit that will be provided, and the scope of the project. Reed added that the authority is seeking a buyer who can complete the project in five years.

Reed said the authority can’t risk delaying a sale process.

“Deals that are here right now and interest that is here right now may change in an economy that is highly volatile and a real estate market that is cyclical,” he said.

“Then don’t tell us that we’re involved,” interjected Scott Callison, a Summerhill resident, to a boom of applause.

Just what will become of the home of the Braves has been a hot and anxiety-ridden topic for stadium communities since the team announced its departure in late 2013. The Braves are building a new stadium in Cobb County and are expected to play there by 2017.

Facing reporters following the stunning news nearly two years ago, Reed promised “one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had.”

In the time since, he’s shown support for a proposal by Georgia State University and real estate firm Carter for a $300 million mix of student housing, apartments, retail and the conversion of Turner Field into a football stadium. He’s dropped several hints to media about potential suitors as far away as California and the Middle East. And Reed has also said that casino companies have expressed interest in the site in the wake of news that MGM Resorts International has scouted downtown for a $1 billion-plus resort.

“We are right on the verge of delivering something extraordinary,” Reed told skeptical neighbors Wednesday of the redevelopment process.

The “only thing delivered so far has been a Putt-Putt course,” Reed said, a dig at the failed Fanplex entertainment zone outside Turner Field. “Nobody has delivered anything for you since the Olympics.”

Reed said he expects multiple bids on the property and hopes Georgia State is among them. And he appeared to hear concerns from the community over a potential casino, telling the crowd as he left the meeting after about a half hour: “I hear you, I hear you, I hear you.”

Mechanicsville resident Raumin Tadayon said what becomes of Turner Field could determine whether he stays in his home of 14 years.

“The people who took a risk to move into this area 15 years ago want to keep the momentum going,” he said, expressing desire for a plan that connects the long-divided communities.

For Tadayon, Reed’s warnings of buyers not sticking around if the process bogs down signals that the overriding concern is for developers to be able to obtain financing while credit is plentiful and interest rates low.

“At the end of the day money moves the muscle,” he said.

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