Reed acknowledges a hard loss, but turns sights to silver linings

A day after the Atlanta Braves made the stunning announcement the team is leaving downtown for the suburbs, Mayor Kasim Reed acknowledged the sting but quickly began narrating the move as one rich with silver linings.

He portrayed the Braves’ departure as less a loss for the city, but a win for Cobb County and the region. Not a foible by his administration, but a business choice by the Braves. Not a devastating blow to downtown Atlanta, but an opportunity to build a new community to attract middle class residents.

“We’re not losing anything,” he said. “The Braves are still in the region so I don’t feel like this is a loss.”

Cobb County’s offer to finance the majority of a new stadium for the team near I-75 and I-285 was simply a better deal, he said, one Atlanta would struggle to compete with short of dipping into taxpayer funds or delaying other much-needed infrastructure fixes.

What’s still unknown is how much money it would have taken to retain the team. But Reed said the Braves wanted between $150 million to $250 million in improvements to consider sticking around.

“We can’t spend money that liberally in the city of Atlanta. We’re fiscal conservatives here,” Reed said in a surprising comparison to a county with a conservative reputation itself.

But some members of the Atlanta City Council, still reeling from the loss, questioned why they hadn’t had an opportunity to weigh in.

Councilman Michael Julian Bond said he understood the mayor’s concern over taxpayer funding, but said that decision should have been vetted by the council.

“If we don’t have a deal before us, we can’t say if it’s too much,” said Bond, who stood next to the mayor earlier this year at a Falcons stadium press conference wearing a Braves jersey. “It may change the appetite of the public to know the Braves are going to move up the road.”

Council President Ceasar Mitchell said the legislative body has requested a meeting with the Braves to discuss what, if anything, can be done to keep the team downtown. The council has also asked to meet with Reed about the negotiations, he said.

“The most important thing this council can do right now is get a briefing from the mayor about what happened,” he said.

Some have questioned what the mayor knew and when he knew it. But members of his administration said they didn’t notify the mayor of any recent problems because they believed talks were progressing and had no indication a breaking point was imminent.

Reed went to lengths to show the city wasn’t asleep at the wheel, and his office released a timeline that showed city officials have been in talks with the team for about 18 months over its lease renewal and plans to redevelop the surrounding communities. The parties clashed at times over how great a role the Braves would play in that process.

That the city was in the midst of partially financing a $1.2 billion Falcons stadium deal also caused friction earlier this year, according to documents released by the administration Tuesday. According to a timeline compiled by city officials, Braves’ Executive Vice President Mike Plant told city officials in February or March that the Braves should get the “same level of attention” as the Falcons.

Hans Utz, the city’s deputy chief operating office who largely handled the negotiations, then notified chief operating officer Duriya Farooqui the team needed “high-level attention immediately.” Team officials then met with Reed in April in a “renewed effort to engage in negotiations.”

In the months since, city officials and the Braves were hashing out issues related to the redevelopment project bidding process, the possibility of a Maglev train, and a $19 million fix for sewer drainage problems near the stadium.

Reed’s first hint of serious trouble came just before 8 a.m. last Wednesday — hours after his re-election victory — when Plant texted him with a request to meet. The men sat down Thursday, along with a handful of city officials, when Plant dropped the news.

At that point, city officials were still weighing a 16-point proposal the team submitted in September at the city’s behest, including requests for $100 million in city funds for infrastructure improvements, Utz said.

“We didn’t let the Braves walk,” he said. “They came to us with a deal in late September that we were in the midst of vetting.”

The chief problem, Utz said, was finding a way to fund the needed improvements to the stadium while city officials are already trying to solve nearly a $1 billion backlog in infrastructure needs.

State law prohibits spending hotel-motel tax on projects outside of the Georgia Dome or successor stadium. Therefore unlike the Falcons’ stadium deal, which commits $200 million in bonds backed by hotel-motel taxes toward construction of the new football stadium, Turner Field improvements must be funded differently.

Reed used that Tuesday to combat accusations he showed the Falcons favoritism not conveyed to the Braves, noting the respective stadium deals are “nothing alike.”

“The challenge around The Ted is we did not have a revenue stream for it,” he said.

In some ways, the mayor’s team was preparing for the team’s departure. Noting while the Braves were negotiating with Cobb officials, his administration was in discussion with developers about a life without the iconic baseball team.

“We had to war-game the possibility of them not being there,” he said.