Aerial of Turner Field site. BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM .
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

Turner Field deal with Georgia State signals ‘new beginning’

Georgia State University and its partners have signed a deal to buy Turner Field and much of its surrounding parking lots, moving a proposed $300 million transformation closer to reality.

The deal for the 20-year-old former Olympic Stadium and soon-to-be former home of the Atlanta Braves brings clarity to an area whose future has been clouded since the Braves announced its move to Cobb County nearly three years ago. The proposal — one of the largest south of I-20 in decades — features housing, retail, classroom space and the conversion of Turner Field into a Panthers football stadium.

“Turner Field may no longer be a baseball stadium, but it will still be a field of dreams,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at a Thursday press conference.

Atlanta was rocked by the Braves’ November 2013 decision to bolt for the suburbs. In the immediate aftermath, Reed promised “one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had.”

Thursday’s announcement, he said, “represents a new beginning for the entire southeast quadrant of our city, and it represents a promise kept to a community that has persevered and has remained strong against daunting odds.”

The $30 million sale is expected to close by Dec. 31. But it is just one step in a mammoth redevelopment effort, and a number of questions remain.

Scott Taylor, president of lead development partner Carter, said the development partners will fund their portion of the project through their own equity, investor dollars and financing from major financial firms. About 70 percent of the development value will go on the tax rolls.

Georgia State’s financing is less clear.

The school’s foundation is purchasing its share of the land. The university’s plan to buy the land from the foundation requires approval from the state Board of Regents, Georgia State president Mark Becker said Thursday. It is not clear when that might happen.

He has previously said the university’s share of the project would be between $100 million and $150 million. At that time, Becker said no state funding, or an increase in student fees would be needed.

Officials with the Regents and Georgia State declined to answer any additional questions regarding funding for the deal.

Chris Riley, Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff, expressed some concern.

“The governor is excited to learn more about this project but anytime a project of this magnitude can move forward without any state funds we should encourage (it),” Riley said.

Becker has rejected questions about Georgia State’s financial capacity, particularly with its long list of completed developments in the downtown area.

Taylor showed no concerns about Georgia State ability to fund the project or lenders’ interest in the project.

“There is extreme interest in this project and many people want to be a part of it,” he said. “We are not concerned about that (obtaining financing).”

The Georgia State team unveiled its vision for the site in May 2014, and last December were named the winning bidders.

Becker credited Reed’s team for expanding the vision to include honoring Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron and the city’s sports legacy as well as for the project’s potential for urban renewal. The development plan, while still evolving, also will include a Panthers baseball field, likely at the site of the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, with a tribute to Aaron’s 715th home run.

Taylor said his group is also examining business incubators and other ways to spur job creation and wants “to make Hank Aaron Drive one of the greatest streets in the United States of America.”

The area could eventually see greater MARTA bus service and streetcars to the Atlanta Beltline if city voters in November approve a half-penny sales tax to fund an expansion of MARTA, Reed said.

For students, Turner Field would be the latest in a string of Georgia State projects anchoring downtown that have transformed the university into one of the nation’s largest.

“This makes Georgia State even more of a complete school and it’s exciting to see what else Georgia State can bring to the Turner Field area,” said Fortune Onwuzuruike, 21, Georgia State’s student government president.

As time of the Braves departure approached, the city and the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority faced both anxious residents and the prospects of millions of dollars in annual upkeep costs going to taxpayers.

“This is not an easy transaction,” said authority chief and city councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, who led negotiations. “The reason it was not easy is that we knew that we had people like you (residents) that we knew we had to answer to.”

The Georgia State plan hasn’t been without controversy, with some neighbors expressing angst about potential effects on nearby neighborhoods and concern that community voices would not be heard during planning.

Jason Dozier, a representative of the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition, said he hopes a formal deal will bring the buyers to the table on a community benefits agreement mandating certain project design elements, jobs programs and steps to prevent displacement.

“We stand ready work with Georgia State,” he said.

A community-driven master planning effort has been underway while the recreation authority and the Georgia State team were in negotiations.

Last month, planners unveiled concepts of that study, which call for a denser and more walkable community across more than 1,300 acres and parts of five neighborhoods near Turner Field. Georgia State and its partners have pledged to incorporate ideas from the plan into their own.

Taylor, the Carter president, said “there are a number of community benefits embedded into our overall plan, which will become apparent in time.” He said it is too early to discuss a potential formal agreement.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.