BY PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA – Turner Field had a signature event right at the start – a trembling Muhammad Ali emerging from the shadows to ignite the flame that opened the 1996 Summer Olympics.
In the years that followed, the Atlanta Braves hosted many memorable moments of their own, from a World Series and All-Star Game to the farewells of Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones.
Now, just 17 years after it opened, it looks as though the stadium affectionately known as “the Ted” is headed for extinction, like so many sports facilities in this city.
In a stunning announcement, the Braves said Monday they are moving to a new 42,000-seat, $672 million stadium about 10 miles from downtown in suburban Cobb County, apparently swayed by a lucrative financial package that was just too good to pass up.
Mayor Kasim Reed said the city couldn’t match a $450 million offer from one of Atlanta’s sprawling northern suburbs, though it wasn’t immediately clear how the county of some 700,000 people plans to raise the money, or whether it will require a vote of the taxpayers.
Mike Plant, the Braves’ 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.”
Until now, Cobb County was perhaps best-known nationally as the base of former House speaker Newt Gingrich and for passing an anti-gay ordinance in the 1990s that led the Olympic organizing committee to abandon plans to hold events there during the Atlanta Games.
In 2017, it will become the home of the Braves.
“It was with mixed emotions that we made this decision,” team president John Schuerholz said. “The new stadium, we believe, will be one of the most magnificent ever built.”
Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee said the team is working to finalize a memorandum of understanding that would be presented to the full commission at its Nov. 26 meeting. He said his fellow commissioners have already been briefed on the deal.
“The response has been very positive, very enthusiastic and supportive of this investment, which will bring significant economic growth to Cobb County and the region,” Lee said.
He declined to answer any questions about public financing.
When asked about the $450 million figure cited by Reed, the chairman said, “I don’t know where he got that from.”
The Braves had made it clear for years they were not satisfied with Turner Field, located just south of downtown near some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The team frequently cited a lack of neighborhood development, complaints about the closest MARTA rapid-transit station being about a mile away, and the inability to secure more parking spaces.
While the city made a high-profile effort to help secure a new $1.2 billion, retractable-roof stadium for the NFL Falcons, talks with the Braves quietly broke down over the summer.
The mayor made it sound like the city never had a chance after Cobb County officials offered up a site that will give the Braves more options for commercial development, including restaurants, retail shops, hotels and entertainment facilities.
Despite the lack of any rapid-transit in Cobb County and the stadium site being located next to one of the city’s most congested interchanges – a swath of interstates that are as wide as seven lanes – the Braves insisted the new stadium could actually provide easier access because of a planned “circulator” bus system.
“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,” Reed said in a statement.
Derek Schiller, the team’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said the Cobb Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority will own the new stadium, with construction scheduled to begin next summer. The team would be responsible for any cost overruns, and Schiller said other financial details would be released soon.
The Braves immediately launched a website that said the new stadium would be closer to the geographic center of the team’s fan base. Also, Census data shows the team is moving to a much more prosperous area, with a median household income of about $61,000 and a poverty level of 8.6 percent, compared to $23,000 and nearly 40 percent for the neighborhood surrounding Turner Field.
Bucking the trend of pro teams seeking stadiums and arenas closer to the city center, the Braves’ new facility will be part of a 60-acre development near Cobb Galleria mall. Plant compared it to new ballparks in Cincinnati, San Diego and Houston, as well as L.A. Live, which hosts the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers and the NHL’s Kings at Staples Center.
“With our current location, we couldn’t control that process,” Plant said. “This site allows us to do that.”
Turner Field opened as the 85,000-seat main stadium for the 1996 Olympics, hosting athletics as well as the opening and closing ceremonies.
After the Olympics, the stadium was renamed after former Braves owner Ted Turner, downsized to about 50,000 seats and converted to a baseball park for 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, just a week after the city’s Omni coliseum met the same fate.
As Turner Field, the park hosted the 1999 World Series, 2000 All-Star Game and four National League Championship Series.
Commissioner Bud Selig said he was kept informed of the negotiations and endorsed the team’s decision, even though Turner Field is newer than 13 of Major League Baseball’s other 29 stadiums. Others were surprised by the announcement.
“That one came out of nowhere,” said Brian Cashman, general manager of the New York Yankees.
Reed said he’s already been in discussions with several organizations about redeveloping the entire Turner Field corridor after the Braves complete their 20-year lease in 2016.
The Falcons are also scheduled to move into their new stadium in 2017, a downtown facility that will be built next door to the Georgia Dome. The old stadium will be leveled after its replacement opens.
Now, it looks like Turner Field is headed for the same fate.