The Atlanta Braves christened Major League Baseball's newest stadium on Friday night with a 5-2 victory over the San Diego Padres in front of some 41,000 fans, most of whom seemed to actually make it into the stadium despite the nightmarish traffic jams and lack of parking at Sun Trust Field.
More on that in a moment.
First, let's keep in mind that none of this would be possible without Cobb County, Georgia, taxpayers kicking in more than $400 million. More accurately, none of this would have been possible without one of Cobb County's former top government officials negotiating a secret deal with the Atlanta Braves to have taxpayers pay that amount for a new stadium, and without the rest of the Cobb County commission voting to approve the stadium deal at a supposedly public hearing where members of the public were prevented from voicing their opposition to the secretly crafted deal.
And that's really only the beginning of the story of one of the worst stadium deals in American history.
When the Braves announced plans in 2013 to relocate from downtown Atlanta to the northern suburbs of Cobb County, Georgia (closer to Marietta, Georgia, than to downtown Atlanta), some observers were surprised. After all, baseball teams had been flocking to retro-style downtown ballparks ever since the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992. Those downtown stadiums were supposed to be revitalizing portions of inner cities in return for massive public spending on the stadiums themselves.
The Braves had one of those downtown ballparks. Turner Field began life as the main Olympic stadium for the 1996 Summer Games, and the Braves moved in the following year.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, at least at first, was that the Braves were abandoning a relatively young ballpark. A ballpark that is younger, in fact, than Miley Cyrus, as Victor Metheson, a professor of sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross, points out.
At the time, the Braves said Turner Field was in need of upgrades that would cost as much as $200 million. It was a no-brainer, then, to move into a new facility that would end up costing $650 million—with taxpayers kicking in $450 million. The real reason for the move, later uncovered by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, was a secret deal negotiated between Cobb County Commissioner Tim Lee and the Braves, which included the promise of $400 million in public cash for a new stadium in the northern suburbs.
Team president John Schuerholz later admitted that the deal had to be in private to avoid a public backlash.
"If it had gotten out, more people would have started taking the position of, 'We don't want that to happen. We want to see how viable this was going to be,'" Schuerholz told Atlanta's NBC affiliate. "We were able to get that all done."
When the deal was made public, there was a backlash—but that wasn't enough to change anything.
Unlike in Arlington, Texas, where voters last year approved a plan to build a replacement for the Texas Rangers' current ballpark (which opened in 1994, making it also younger than Cyrus, who was born in 1992), there was no referendum on the stadium in Cobb County. In fact, opponents of the stadium plan were prevented from speaking at a public meeting before county officials voted 5-0 in favor of the deal.
After the stadium was approved, things only got worse.
The new stadium promised to bring an economic stimulus to the surrounding area, but businesses near SunTrust Park soon found out that they would be shut out of one of the major benefits of having thousands of people descend on the area for 81 home games each season. In 2016, businesses within a mile of the stadium site were told they would be prohibited from selling their parking spaces to fans. As part of the deal signed between the team and the county, The ordinance was requested by the Braves, the Journal-Constitution reported. The team said it was about public safety, because apparently fans' vehicles will only be safe and sound if those fans pay $40 to park in a lot owned by the team.
The team eventually backed down from that position and allowed nearby businesses to offer parking to fans—but only after it became apparent that a pedestrian bridge crossing Interstate 285, connecting the stadium to several nearby parking structures, would not be finished in time for this year's grand opening. Recently, county officials admitted the $3.5 million pedestrian bridge won't be ready until next year, leaving the team with an inadequate parking situation for the entire season.
As bad as the stadium deal has been for taxpayers, there's at least a silver lining. The backroom negotiations, ethics questions, and obvious lack of economic benefit for anyone or anything in Cobb County has laid bare the false claims made by teams, owners, and leagues in favor of new publicly funded stadiums.
"The reason the Braves say they want to move is because that stadium is in such a terrible neighborhood and they say 'we want to go somewhere else where we can develop that econoniy,'" Metheson told me on this week's edition of American Radio Journal. "Well, look, the original Braves stadium has had 20 years to redevelop the neighborhood that it's in, and it has been completely unsuccessful there."
The county commissioner who engineered the whole thing ended up under investigation for ethics violations and was voted out of office in 2016. That doesn't mean that taxpayers get their money back and doesn't fix any of the lingering problems at the Braves' new home, but, hey, at least it's something.
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