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For the much-needed attention she paid to the city’s infrastructure, Shirley Franklin became known as Atlanta’s sewer mayor.
Kasim Reed may have something flashier in mind as a legacy. If things go his way, by the time he’s finished, Reed may be known as the stadium mayor.
You already know that Reed is a major force behind Arthur Blank’s effort to build a new, $1 billion-plus home for his Atlanta Falcons. The Georgia World Congress Center Authority would hold the title. A state-approved hotel-motel tax would pay for at least $300 million of the structure – perhaps more, if the Legislature and governor can be persuaded.
This winter, the Falcons project could require the mayor of Atlanta, a former state senator, to return as a full-time resident of the Capitol. While he’s there, Reed may also give some attention to yet another stadium deal in the works.
This one is so fresh that it’s not out of diapers and thus has no dollar figure attached. Conceivably, it could have more of an economic impact on downtown Atlanta than replacing the 20-year-old Georgia Dome, without the taxpayer heartburn.
Through the city’s development authority, Invest Atlanta, Reed is attempting to put together a private-public partnership to develop the vast, vacant stretch between the state Capitol and Turner Field into a live-work-play area on par with Atlantic Station.
Substantive talks are underway, with the 2016 expiration of the Atlanta Braves’ lease on Turner Field in mind. The Braves have never been entirely happy there.
“As we sit here in 2012, this isn’t where we would have this stadium today,” began Mike Plant, the Braves’ executive vice president of business operations. “I’m not saying it’s a bad place, but it doesn’t match up with where the majority of our fans come from.”
Historians will remember that, ‘way back in ’88, the Braves gave some thought to a new stadium in Gwinnett County – for the major league team, not its AAA club.
A converted 1996 Olympic stadium kept the team downtown – where they are likely to remain, given the current climate. “The appetite for taxpayer-funded stadiums is not – in 2012 – probably too high,” Plant said.
In other words, as with tens of thousands of homeowners in metro Atlanta, circumstances have locked the Braves into place. Which leaves the baseball team and its owners no choice but to build a better neighborhood.
“Now we have to create an environment like San Diego, Denver, Cincinnati, Colorado,” Plant said. “They’ve taken challenged areas and used sports arenas for really improving, stimulating some real solid development.”
Plant said the team first approached the mayor of Atlanta two years ago. In August, the city’s development authority sought to take the temperature of real estate investors. A half-dozen have responded.
The Braves envision a partnership that includes themselves, the city, a number of private investors, and the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, which owns Turner Field and the 55 vacant acres now devoted to parking – and nothing else.
External features would include residential and retail properties and perhaps even a people-mover to help fans to the MARTA rail line that’s eight-tenths of a mile away. The Braves intend to use cash earned from their investment in the neighborhood to pay for improvements within Turner Field.
“See all those blue seats out there?” said Plant, pointing out of his stadium office window to 55,000 posterior-placement platforms. “That’s a potential $15 million project. We break about 500 of them a year now. They’re rated for 15 years, and we’re going to make it to 20.”
The seats are made in Australia, the remnant of an Olympic trade deal. “We’ve got to replace every seat in this place,” he said.
Brian McGowan, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta, is the shepherd of the Turner Field project. He, too, is highly cognizant of the political climate. The area is a TAD – a tax allocation district. But McGowan said any expenditure of public money would be incidental.
That’s why real estate firms have been sounded out on the project. “We wanted to ‘ping’ the private sector to see how they felt about this. The government can have the grandest of plans for things like this, but if it doesn’t stand the private sector, private capital test, then it’s not going to work,” McGowan said.
(James Hughes Jr., an Emory law professor and chairman of the recreation authority, also said it was unlikely that his board’s bonding capacity would be tapped.)
Unlike the Falcons deal, a public-private partnership to develop the Turner Field project shouldn’t require a great deal of involvement from the occupants of the state Capitol, McGowan said.
But there may be one fly in that ointment. When the Legislature convenes in January, Republican lawmakers will begin their efforts to reduce Fulton County government to a mere shell. Turner Field, owned by the city-county recreation authority, could find itself involved in a tug-of-war. That’s not a welcome thought for the Braves.
“I’m going to rely on the fact that people on both sides of the aisle recognize the importance of this team not just because of what we do on the field, but because of our economic numbers as well,” said the Braves’ Plant. “We’re a viable business that drives a lot of activity and a lot of revenue.”
That number, he underlined, is $104 million a year. And could be much more.
Postscript:There are those of you out there who will note that the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority doesn’t seem to be at the center of these talks. One word explains that: Fanplex.