Turner Field hosted its first baseball game in 1997. It will host its last one in 2016.
Shocking almost everyone, the Atlanta Braves just announced that they will be leaving their 17-year-old stadium and doing a very Atlanta thing - relocating to the suburbs.
The new $625 million, publicly subsidized facility will be located in Cobb County, well north of Turner Field. It will debut in time for the 2017 Major League Baseball season. Braves President John Schuerholz says they've acquired the land they need for the project and will turn the undeveloped area into a 60-acre mixed-use district centered around the ballpark.
As young and acclaimed as Turner Field may seem, the Braves are hardly impressed. As they explained in a press release earlier today:
Turner Field has served the Braves well since 1997, but it is in need of major infrastructure work, which will cost around $150 million. These upgrades are functional ones, such as replacing worn-out seats or upgrading the stadium's lighting, and they would do little to significantly enhance the fan experience. If the Braves were to pay for additional projects focused on improving the fan experience, the additional costs could exceed $200 million.
Those upgrades still wouldn't address the logistical challenges outside the stadium – lack of consistent mass transit options, inadequate number of parking spaces and limited access to major highways.
On their website, the team also published a map that shows how the Cobb County facility will better accommodate the core of its fan base, with concentrations of ticket purchasers clustered mostly to areas north of downtown:
With the suburban ticket buyer in mind, they cite the current stadium's lack of highway access as a major problem. That's just not true. There are three different highways in walking distance from the stadium as seen below:
The Braves also say the current site doesn't provide enough parking. While the team surely can't provide parking for all potential 50,000 spectators, the amount of surface parking it does have leaves a pretty substantial gap in the neighborhood on the 200-something days of the year when there isn't a game:
And while Atlanta is not famous for having stellar public transit, Turner Field is a 25-minute walk from the nearest MARTA station, served by multiple bus routes, and has a free (!) shuttle from downtown on game days. Sure, it may not be ideal, but the site of their next stadium has even worse public transit. Cobb County seems mostly interested in creating car-oriented transit improvements for the Braves' arrival, although they do say planning has begun on a limited local trolley line.
In their press release, the Braves made themselves seem downright benevolent for playing in "a facility that was built for three weeks of use for the Olympics, but has now served us well for nearly 20 years." That's a pretty far departure from what the team was saying when Turner Field first opened. Turner Sports, whose national baseball broadcasting schedule consisted almost entirely of Braves games in the 90s, couldn't stop gushing over the new digs in 1997:
Neither could the Braves themselves. Allow Janet Marie Smith, the team's VP of development at the time (who has also overseen the construction of Camden Yards and the renovation of Fenway Park) tell you why Turner Field, at its debut, would be one of the best baseball-specific stadiums in America:
Of course, age can take a toll on a stadium, but hardly anyone thinks Turner Field or the ballparks it drew inspiration from are anywhere close to obsolescence. The Braves even admit that the upgrades Turner Field "needs" wouldn't make much impact on the fan experience. And the team has already seen millions of dollars in tech and "fan experience" upgrades over the past decade.
Meanwhile the Falcons, Atlanta's NFL team, are getting a new stadium too, one that will receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the city. Perhaps that explains why Mayor Kasim Reed seems so willing to let Cobb County spend hundreds of millions on the Braves, saying earlier today, "given the needs facing our city and the impact of Turner Field stadium on surrounding neighborhoods, that was something I, and many others were unwilling to do." Local writer Thomas Wheatley of Creative Loafing Atlanta concurs, telling us that "having the [Falcons] stadium deal, then following it with a big subsidy for the Braves would have probably been politically unfeasible."
This unexpected announcement is a reminder that pro sports teams keep finding avenues for publicly subsidized projects. It may also be a sign that Atlanta still loves its suburbs as much as ever.