More than 200 people packed the club over The Ted’s left field seats and heard something many had feared: the process to sell Turner Field would move forward at the same time as a planned community study conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Neighborhood groups have long demanded the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority wait until the Livable Centers Initiative study — to be chock full of community input — was finished.
Instead, the authority could issue a request for proposals for the ballpark’s redevelopment as soon as October.
A number of themes emerged in the meeting, which also drew many politicos, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Bidders and the economy
Reed and others on the panel argued the process needs to move forward, given what Reed described as the volatility of the real estate market. The ARC study might take the better part of a year. Bidders are at the table now, Reed said, but might not be if things drag on.
The team of Georgia State University and the real estate firm Carter is the only group so far that’s come forward with a plan, though Reed said others, including casino interests, are scouting the site. He said he believes the RFP will undoubtedly cause others to surface.
The authority’s executive director told neighborhood groups that the sale process must begin in short order as the Atlanta Braves are poised to vacate the ballpark by the end of next year. The cost of Turner Field upkeep to taxpayers at that time, she said, will be around $5 million annually.
“I don’t stand here as an alarmist. I stand here as a realist. Time is of the essence,” said Keisha Lance Bottoms, with grand views of Turner Field behind her. “This is a 48,000-seat stadium that in 15 months will be empty.”Reed said the notion of waiting for the community study before starting the bidding process “is too unstable for this kind of development.”
It’s a fear Reed has shared before — that the current real estate cycle might not last. It’s tied to the theory that it is better to move forward with interested parties now than wait and maybe end up with an empty stadium rusting along the Downtown Connector after the Braves leave.
Reed’s term ends in 2017, and a vacant ballpark with no plan to replace it isn’t the legacy he likely wants to leave.
But timing the market is tricky.
The current U.S. economic expansion has carried on since the end of 2009, an extraordinary, if uneven, six-year run. Recessions generally hit every four years or so.
Reed said the authority and city want to pick a developer that can pull off its vision in five years.
Developers are still scoping out prime property and lenders are hot for commercial real estate again. But how long will that last?
Many in the room applauded loudly when one resident said local officials don’t exactly have a good track record of listening to residents.
One person, after the meeting, mentioned that many neighbors of Fort McPherson felt like they’d been railroaded by the process of selling much of the closed Army post to filmmaker Tyler Perry.
Reed said the authority can’t risk delaying a sale process.
“Deals that are here right now and interest that is here right now may change in an economy that is highly volatile and a real estate market that is cyclical,” he said.
“Then don’t tell us that we’re involved,” interjected Scott Callison, a Summerhill resident. The audience applauded in agreement.
Afterward, another resident said the meeting appeared to show the city is more interested in making sure not to miss the current economic cycle — and affordable interest rates — than hearing the community’s vision.
Another overriding sentiment in the room: casinos aren’t a popular redevelopment idea for Turner Field.
Moderator and long-time Atlanta public relations and political communications consultant Jeff Dickerson read one written question from the audience that got plenty of heads nodding.
“No casino! No casino! No casino!” Dickerson read from the card.
Reed, who was on his way out of the meeting quickly replied: “I hear you, I hear you, I hear you.”
Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this report.