Turner Field goes to Georgia State

Georgia State University and a private development team have been named the winning bidders for Turner Field, a landmark in limbo since the Atlanta Braves announced their departure two years ago.

On Monday, the government authority that owns The Ted voted to make official what has long been deemed inevitable: that the ballpark will be converted into an arena for Georgia State Panthers football and a new mixed-use community.

The Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority will immediately begin negotiating a sale with Georgia State and the Atlanta real estate firms Carter and Oakwood Development. The sale covers about 70 acres south of I-20, including the stadium and many of the surrounding parking lots.

A deal is expected to be reached in 30 days, an authority spokesman said.

The announcement comes a little more than two years after the Atlanta Braves shocked the region by announcing plans to leave downtown for a new ballpark in Cobb County. The move threatened to create a vacuum near the Downtown Connector, one of the South’s busiest arteries, leaving local leaders scrambling to find a new buyer ahead of the team’s exit.

Almost immediately following the Braves’ news, observers predicted Georgia State would likely acquire the stadium, citing its success in transforming a hodgepodge of downtown buildings into an urban college campus.

In May 2014, the Georgia State team unveiled to the editorial board of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a $300 million project that included converting Turner Field into a football stadium, student housing, apartments and retail in a corner of downtown long cut off from the rest of the city by interstates.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has long shown public support for the Georgia State plan, but also said casino groups and others have inquired about the site.

Reed called the authority’s vote a “significant step” for the communities near the ballpark and said it “strengthens Georgia State University’s position as one of the leading universities in the nation.”

But many specifics haven’t been disclosed, such as the price for the property or how the university and its partners will finance the purchase of the site and its construction.

The Georgia Board of Regents would need to approve both the plan and how the project will be funded. Some of this could be discussed as early as January, when the board is expected to take up the issue of Georgia State’s merger with Georgia Perimeter College — a move that would make the university the state’s largest.

A spokesman for the Regents said, “The board will be engaged as there is substantial work that remains ahead before approval is considered.”

Georgia State President Mark Becker said in a statement the school is “extremely pleased” and pledged to work with residents as the plan moves forward.

“The Turner Field project will be transformational for the surrounding neighborhoods, the city and our university, and we embrace our responsibility to work closely with community and civic leaders in getting it done,” the statement read.

In October, the authority opened a competitive bid process. Only two other groups, both little-known, made a play for the ballpark and surrounding parking lots, making it apparent to most observers that the Carter and Georgia State team would be the winner.

The process hasn’t come without controversy for neighborhoods long promised economic vitality that never materialized.

Many residents near the stadium expressed angst for months about the Georgia State plan, as well as about the rumored interest from casinos. Residents called on city leaders to slow down their march to sell the property and allow neighborhood groups to complete a community development study through the Atlanta Regional Commission.

But the recreation authority has argued for a quick sale, noting the Braves will leave the ballpark by the end of next year. After that point, stadium upkeep and security would be on the taxpayers.

To help assuage residents, the request for proposals made it clear that the community’s input must be included in the final plan. The request for proposals requires the potential buyer to “demonstrate a commitment to incorporating” recommendations from a pending community development study.

Kim Foster, a longtime Summerhill resident and member of the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition, expressed cautious hope that residents will have meaningful input. The coalition hopes to reach its own formal agreement with Carter and Georgia State over community benefits, she said.

“We have the mayor’s word, so all we can do is take his word that the community will have not just fluff involvement, but formalized involvement,” she said. “…We have to make sure everybody is properly represented.”

Recreation authority executive director Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is also a key Reed ally on the Atlanta City Council, said the authority and buyers will continue to work with the community “to ensure that they continue to play a vital role in this process.”

In its news release, the recreation authority said it picked the Georgia State team because of its capacity to revitalize the stadium area with housing, retail and jobs for current and future residents. Georgia State’s bid also was considered for its incorporation of the city’s sports history, such as the Braves, Hank Aaron’s home run record and the 1996 Olympic Games in its plans.

Also key: the ability of the developers to deliver their vision in five years, as required by the bid process.

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves, who has lobbied for the county to have a greater role in the ballpark’s sale, said he was pleased with Monday’s vote. Eaves appointed a Turner Field area resident to the authority board this summer, a move he thinks increased community input.

Sheila Mack, a longtime Summerhill resident, said she’s glad the Georgia State plan won out.

“We don’t even know who the other bidders were,” said Mack, who moved into the area in 1999.

Mack said she was disappointed only three firms bid on the ballpark, but she’s glad rumors of a casino on the land didn’t come true.

“As opposed to a casino, yes, I think Georgia State is a better fit,” she said. “This neighborhood is due something good.”

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