For the first time since big-league sports arrived here almost a half-century ago, an Atlanta team intends to move its games from downtown to the suburbs.
The Braves, whose dissatisfaction with 17-year-old Turner Field was overshadowed by the Falcons’ effort to replace the Georgia Dome, declared Monday that they will build a new ballpark in partnership with Cobb County in time for the 2017 season.
The plan is to put a stadium, parking lots and mixed-use development on 60 undeveloped acres that the Braves are in the process of buying at the northwest intersection of I-75 and I-285, in Cobb’s Cumberland Mall/Galleria area.
The out-of-the-blue announcement left big questions unanswered — most notably how much money Cobb County is putting into the deal and where it will come from. The Braves don’t have a completed agreement with Cobb officials, and the county commission hasn’t voted on the deal, or even discussed it in an open meeting.
Even so, two Braves executives described themselves as “100 percent” confident the stadium will be built. And Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee said he hopes a memorandum of understanding, including financial details, will be done within two weeks.
Lee said a deal will require approval by the county commission but not a public referendum. He said he doesn’t expect the commission vote, expected Nov. 26, to be controversial among board members.
The Braves said the stadium will cost about $672 million and that they will be a “significant investor,” but declined to say how much they’ll contribute. A statement by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed put Cobb’s commitment at $450 million. Lee disputed that amount but would not give his own figure or indentify the source of the money.
“It is through Cobb County, and Cobb County will be responsible for delineating the various buckets of dollars,” Braves executive vice president Derek Schiller said.
Reed, who fought for a deal that will keep the Falcons downtown in a new football stadium just south of the Georgia Dome, seemed to concede the Braves’ departure in a statement released several hours after the club went public with its plan.
“… At the end of the day, there was simply no way the team was going to stay in downtown Atlanta without city taxpayers spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make that happen,” Reed said. “It is my understanding that our neighbor, Cobb County, made a strong offer of $450M in public support to the Braves, and we are simply unwilling to match that with taxpayer dollars.”
Reed concluded his statement by saying he is “excited” about how “the land that is now Turner Field” will be used in the future.
The Braves — Atlanta’s first big-league team when they moved from Milwaukee in 1966 — played their first 31 seasons here in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which was located in what is now a Turner Field parking lot. They moved to their current home in 1997, after the 1996 Olympic Stadium was converted to a baseball venue. The 2015 season will be the Braves’ 50th in downtown Atlanta.
“We didn’t make this decision lightly,” Braves president John Schuerholz said in a meeting with reporters. “We’ve played in our current facility for quite some time, and it was with mixed emotions that we made this decision because we have many great Braves baseball memories … in that facility. But we are quite enthused about where our new facility will be.”
Braves officials cited several reasons for leaving Turner Field when the team’s 20-year lease ends after the 2016 season.
Mike Plant, executive vice president of business operations, said the stadium would need $150 million in “infrastructure improvements,” such as replacing seats and upgrading systems. He said another $200 million would be needed to improve the “fan experience.”
Moreover, Plant said, the Braves are convinced that traffic and parking problems are a serious impediment to attendance at Turner Field.
“What is insurmountable is that we can’t control traffic, which is the No. 1 reason our fans don’t come to more games,” Plant said. He said the problem has grown “immensely” in the past decade, compounded by the fact “we are under-served by about 5,000 parking spaces.”
“All of those things contribute to some real challenges for us that, looking forward, we didn’t believe could be overcome,” Plant said.
It is not clear how the traffic issue will be solved in the congested Cumberland/Galleria area, which has no nearby rail access. But Braves executive vice president of sales and marketing Derek Schiller said, “Today most of our fans arrive via car, and getting to this (new) site via car from all sorts of different directions is easier.” He said the Cobb location “is near the geographic center of our fan base.”
The team released a map showing a heavy concentration of ticket buyers in the northern suburbs.
Schiller said the new open-air stadium will have about 41,000 or 42,000 seats compared to Turner Field’s rarely filled 50,000.
The Braves had been in talks with city of Atlanta officials over the past year about the possibility of a mixed-use development surrounding Turner Field, as well as about the the team’s other concerns.
“We didn’t make the progress we needed (in those discussions) for the long-term future of our organization,” Plant said, “and fortunately we were able to identify a great opportunity and great partnership to accommodate all those things that were important to us and our fans with Cobb County.”
In Cobb, Schiller said the first phase of the adjoining mixed-use development will open at the same time as the stadium. He said the development will include entertainment, retail, restaurants and potentially hotels. It is not clear who will pay for the mixed-use part of the project, although the Braves noted that they will control the development, unlike the area surrounding Turner Field.
The Braves expect to begin construction in the second half of next year.
That puts them on about the same timetable as the Falcons, who expect to break ground in April on their new $1.2 billion retractable-roof stadium downtown and complete it in March 2017.
Schuerholz said Liberty Media — the Braves’ famously silent Colorado-based owner — is on board.
“Their response is, ‘We like this. We give you the green light to go forward,’” Schuerholz said. “And we have.”
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