The Braves announced Monday they are leaving Turner Field and moving into a new 42,000-seat, $672 million stadium about 10 miles from downtown in 2017. Atlanta's mayor said the city wasn't willing match an offer from suburban Cobb County worth $450 million in taxpayer funding.
Braves executives John Schuerholz, Mike Plant and Derek Schiller said the team decided not to seek another lease at 17-year-old Turner Field and began talks with the Cobb Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority in July.
Plant, the executive vice president of business operations, said the team has not signed a contract with Cobb County, but he's "100 percent certain it will happen." He said talks broke down with the Atlanta Fulton County Recreational Authority earlier this year over an extension of the team's 20-year lease, which expires after the 2016 season.
The stunning news came as the NFL's Atlanta Falcons finalize plans for a new $1.2 billion retractable roof stadium near downtown, which is also scheduled to open in 2017.
"We started looking at our future way back in 2005," Plant said. "We recognized some of the challenges the current site held for us and we recognized some of the opportunities that we were going to pursue to enhance those."
Mayor Kasim Reed said the city simply didn't have the funding to match Cobb County's offer.
"We have been working very hard with the Braves for a long time, and 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," he said in a statement. "It is my understanding that our neighbor, Cobb County, made a strong offer of $450 (million) in public support to the Braves and we are simply unwilling to match that with taxpayer dollars."
Schiller, the executive vice president of sales and marketing, declined to reveal how much taxpayers will be responsible for, saying that information as well as the length of the new lease will be made public soon. The Cobb Marietta authority will own the stadium, with construction scheduled to begin sometime next summer. The team would be responsible for any cost overruns.
The Braves immediately launched a website that said the new stadium would be closer to the geographic center of the team's fan base in the sprawling northern suburbs.
Bucking the trend of teams pushing for stadiums and arenas closer to the city center, the Braves are abandoning a site just south of downtown that has been their home since the team moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966. They played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium through the 1996 season, then moved the following year into a new stadium built right across the street, initially serving as the centerpiece of the Summer Olympics.
Despite its relatively young age, Plant said Turner Field needs $150 million in routine improvements and that it would cost $200 million to truly enhance the fan experience. The Braves were frustrated in their efforts to acquire another 5,000 parking places and also complained about the lack of direct access to the MARTA rapid transit system. The closest station is about a mile away and most fans who used MARTA took a connecting bus service.
The Braves brushed over the fact that MARTA doesn't even serve Cobb County, which has long rejected efforts to bring rapid transit to the suburbs and chose to develop its own limited, bus-only system. The new stadium will be located at the interchange for two of Atlanta's busiest interstates, I-75 and I-285, and has been plagued by major traffic problems for years - despite northbound I-75 being expanded as wide as seven lanes near the new stadium site.
Schiller said the Braves plan a "circulator" bus system to get fans around the site of the planned stadium.
"We expect ease of access to be greatly improved," he said.
While Atlanta and Fulton County officials helped the Falcons work closely with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority to reach a deal for a new football stadium adjacent to the Georgia Dome, the Braves never got that far in their talks with the city. Reed, in fact, said he has already been talking with several organizations that are interested in redeveloping the entire Turner Field corridor.
Plant said a major impetus for a move was the desire to build restaurants, retail shops, hotels and entertainment facilities around the new ballpark, efforts that never came to fruition at Turner Field. He pointed to amenities around new ballparks in Cincinnati, San Diego and Houston, along with L.A. Live, which hosts the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers and the NHL's Kings at Staples Center.
The new stadium will be part of a 60-acre development near Cobb Galleria mall.
"With our current location, we couldn't control that process," Plant said. "That's something that was important to us. This site allows us to do that."
The Braves plan to sell stadium naming rights, just as the Falcons intend to do with their new stadium.
"We can sell ourselves," Schuerholz said. "We don't need to worry about what our competition is."
Turner Field opened as the 85,000-seat main stadium for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, hosting athletics as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. Afterward, it was downsized and converted into the Braves' new stadium beginning with the 1997 season, replacing Atlanta-Fulton Stadium across the street.
The old stadium was imploded and turned into a parking lot for the new facility.
Now, the stadium nicknamed "the Ted" after its namesake - former Braves owner Ted Turner - could be headed for oblivion, even though it is newer than 14 of the other 29 parks in Major League Baseball. It hosted the 1999 World Series, 2000 All-Star Game and four National League Championship Series.
"It was with mixed emotions that we made this decision because we have many great Braves baseball memories," Schuerholz said. "The new stadium, we believe, will be one of the most magnificent ever built. It will thrive with action and vitality 365 days a year, not just game days."