Turner Field plans would be closer to ‘dream’ with Braves

Outside of an empty stadium, which for most of the past two seasons has hosted an empty team, the mayor of Atlanta was doing what mayors do best: Waxing on. Poetically, economically, politically.

“Turner Field will no longer be a baseball stadium, but it will still be a field of dreams, and it will inspire a neighborhood of dreams,” Kasim Reed said.

(Shoeless Joe stands off stage, on the edge of a cornfield, waiting for his turn to speak.)

Reed then transitioned from imagination to visualization: “Goodbye asphalt eyesores. Hello 21st century. Hello retail, hello residential, hello walkable streets and bike paths.”

(Utopia. Who knew it could be so close to the Five Points MARTA station?)

It remains to be seen if the development plan, as laid out by Reed and the assembled talking heads Thursday, is realized. These things have a way of getting tweaked. Or bludgeoned.

But let’s assume for the sake of this dream sequence that it really happens and the acreage surrounding Turner Field morphs into Oz. There will be restaurants and retails shops and a grocery store and hip in-town housing and idyllic walking paths.

Even with all that, you know what will be missing? Major league baseball.

The irony of the plans for the Turner Field area is that they include almost everything the Braves sought from the time they moved into the stadium following the 1996 Olympics. Team executives looked out their office windows and saw the stadium plaza, the Hank Aaron statue and then acres of asphalt.

Now their dream may be happening, just without them.

I’m not taking the Braves’ side. They got a free stadium after the Olympics and have become renowned for milking local governments for public funds for their minor league facilities. They almost certainly would’ve asked for another handout for Turner Field renovations because that’s what pro sports teams do, even when they’re owned by multi-billion-dollar corporations like Liberty Media.

But imagine if Reed had done things differently (and Tim Lee and his Cobb County checkbook hadn’t fallen into the Braves’ lap). Imagine if the city made a stronger commitment to the Braves than the Falcons.

Baseball is a summer sport. The Braves are a regional team. Baseball stadiums tend to be at the center of downtown redevelopment projects far more than football because they draw more crowds on more days during vacation months. Most cities want their baseball teams downtown, not in the suburbs. Take all of those blueprints for cafes and coffee shops and bike paths and mixed-used complexes and now drop the Braves and Turner Field in the middle of it all.

Would that not have been better than a renovated football stadium for Georgia State, which is struggling to get on anybody’s radar?

Instead, Reed hitched his wagon to Arthur Blank and the Falcons, committing $200 million in hotel/motel tax toward new football stadium construction, as well as possibly another $500 million-plus for interest and upkeep. (There’s no hard cap on the Falcons’ deal.) There was no push in the legislature to change the law to have that money funneled toward development around Turner Field. It could’ve been a great first step toward possibly appeasing the Braves and securing a deal.

I asked Reed if a part of him would’ve preferred that this project included the Braves.

“No,” he said. “At the end of the (Braves and Falcons) transactions are just vastly difference. The Falcons’ arrangement is highly lucrative for the city. If we hadn’t kept the Falcons, we would’ve lost about $10 million that comes from the hotel-motel tax.”

But the law could’ve been changed, right?

Reed didn’t dispute that. Instead, he pivoted and suddenly referred to Braves’ home games as a “disruptions” and possible deterrents for in-town home buyers.

“I don’t buy the notion that you’re going to have significant residential development with 81 games a night,” he said. “People that can pay $200,000 to $250,000 for a home typically don’t like to be disrupted 81 times a year. That’s a judgment I made.”

(Mental note: Reed considers the multitude of events to be held at the Falcons’ new stadium to be good business, not “disruptions.”)

More from the mayor: “If we were having a conversation about the Braves leaving Atlanta or the region, I would’ve paid … whatever. But for a 12-mile move, I thought this was a better long-term decision for us.”

So there you go. Reed was more concerned about the Falcons moving 12 miles to the suburbs than the Braves.

In the end, the Braves got what they wanted: a big check and an ability to become commercial real estate landlords. Even if the downtown plans only partially come to fruition, it will be a significant upgrade.

Atlanta battled the Braves and won the right to keep the Hank Aaron statue, which sits outside the stadium. Strangely, they were fine with letting the team Aaron played for go.