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Rays look to suburban Atlanta for lessons from the last team to build a new stadium

Credit Here Battery Atlanta, a mixed-use development surrounding SunTrust Park in Atlanta, has proven a popular draw for its mix of bars, restaurants and retail options. Even hours before the first game played between the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays at the stadium on Aug. 28, 2018.
Populous Architects The more than decade-long stadium drama that surrounds the Tampa Bay Rays will enter a new phase today when Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg unveils the design of the ballpark the team wants built in Ybor City. Estimates for a new ballpark have ranged from $600 million to upward of $800 million. Local leaders have said that paying for that by raising sales or property taxes is not an option. Populous Architects
Getty Images ATLANTA, GA - JULY 19: A general view of SunTrust Park during the game between the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs on July 19, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Gary Merlino, 62, and Dawn Schaarschmidt, 58, of East Lake in Pinellas County enter SunTrust Park on Aug. 28 to see the first Tampa Bay Rays game against the Atlanta Braves in the new stadium. [CHARLIE FRAGO | Times]
CHARLIE FRAGO | Times Comcast located a regional headquarters overlooking the field at SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves. Nearby, a variety of entertainment options are designed to entice fans to come hours before the game and to stay after it ends.
Even on nights when the Braves aren't playing, a healthy crowd strolls through Battery Atlanta, adjacent to the team's ballpark. [CHARLIE FRAGO | Times]
Friday 7 September 2018 11.00

CUMBERLAND, Ga. — The plans for new baseball parks in Atlanta and Tampa don’t seem to have much in common.

One opened in the suburbs with a traditional stadium design as the centerpiece of a much bigger development, the other would squeeze into an urban center and feature a translucent roof.

Still, those planning a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Ybor City — as well as those re-imagining the space the Rays would leave behind in St. Petersburg — have joined a hundred others beating a path to SunTrust Park outside Atlanta to see what lessons they might learn from baseball’s newest stage.

For one thing, the stadium in Cobb County opened 17 months ago so it provides the most current comparison available when it comes to key economic and political considerations.

And a visit 470 miles north to SunTrust Park — a four-deck, open-air stadium with clear views from all of its 41,000 seats — helps sharpen the questions the Tampa Bay area faces as its own team rounds the bases with a plan to move from one side of the community to the other.

RELATED:Complete coverage of Rays stadium plans

Among those questions is how baseball fits into the bigger entertainment picture.

The Rays chose Ybor City as their favored site, in part, so they can fit into what’s already there — a historic Latin district that has emerged as a nightlife mecca. The Braves took the opposite approach, building from scratch a self-contained, all-hours "live, work, play" capsule called Battery Atlanta.

Another question is how to get people to and from the park. The Rays have made it clear they would like as many mass transit options as possible. Suburban SunTrust Park offers little, and serious congestion was predicted there. But massive traffic jams haven’t materialized and parking spaces have proven adequate, in part through some technological tweaks.

Finally, there’s the question of how much of the negotiations plays out in public.

The Rays won approval from St. Petersburg to look across the bay for a new stadium site back in January 2016. Then they announced the Ybor City site in February, and in July, revealed a design featuring see-through sliding glass walls, a fixed translucent roof and architectural features consistent with historic Ybor City. The biggest question of all, how to pay for the project, seems to be the only one remaining — and no one is predicting when this answer will come.

In Atlanta, on the other hand, the news came nearly all at once: Less than two weeks elapsed between the Braves’ announcement of their intentions to move to the suburbs and a Cobb County commission vote to approve a financing package.

By many measures, the Braves’ model is proving to be a success.

Attendance is way up, game-day crowds show up earlier and stay later, and the team — after four dismal seasons — is likely headed to the playoffs.

At the same time, a prominent politician who pushed for the stadium lost his job, and hard feelings persist both in Atlanta — home to the Braves since 1966 — and Cobb County, where some people blame a property tax increase on the $287.3 million the county put toward the $1.3 billion Battery Atlanta project.

"This is a grand slam for Cobb," said Mike Plant, president and chief executive officer of the Braves Development Co., who put the deal together in just four months after a nearly decade-long negotiation with Atlanta officials to expand downtown-area Turner Field. "This is truly the model going forward."

Some choose a different analogy.

"It’s more like a sacrifice bunt," said J.C. Bradbury, an economist at nearby Kennesaw State University who says he’s seen scant evidence of sales tax or other revenue bumps. "Best-case scenario, we come out even."

• • •

Plant says the deal’s critics underplay the "halo effect" of new high-end office space and apartments that have sprung up on the outskirts of the development where Interstates 75 and 285 meet.

When an economic impact report is released at the end of the month, he says, the bloom will be attached even more firmly to the rose.

"This is going to go down as one of the greatest public-private partnerships in sports entertainment history," Plant said during an interview in his office overlooking the field, where a few hours later the Tampa Bay Rays would play their first game ever at SunTrust Park.

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Still, fast-tracking the deal left a bitter taste throughout the community, economist Bradbury said.

"This was negotiated in secret," he said. "There was a lot of angst over that happening. A lot of people were upset."

It couldn’t have been done any other way, said Tim Lee, chairman of the Cobb County Commission at the time. The deal violated no open meeting laws, Lee said, even as he kept the project under wraps until just a week or so before the announcement. Then he briefed each of his fellow commissioners individually. Any one of them, he said, could have delayed the deal.

"This was a team sport," he said.

Lee said he approached the Braves deal as an economic development opportunity, akin to a major corporate relocation. If news leaked, he said, it could have affected employee morale, advertising and leases for the team.

"The Braves made it clear if it got out before they were ready, they were going to walk away," Lee said.

The strategy proved successful, said John Loud, a board member with the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce.

"The key to success for economic development sometimes is keeping everything quiet," said Loud, who organized a group to lobby for the project in the frenzied days before the commission vote.

The Braves wanted to control everything — the land, the parking, the surrounding development — and needed a tight circle to get the pieces in place. Plant said he had about 40 people sign non-disclosure agreements, including adjacent property owners, the land broker, project managers, architects and engineers.

He said the approach interested the Rays when they visited.

"One of the things they asked us was, ‘How did you guys do this?’ " Plant said.

The Rays rejected any suggestion they considered this approach.

"We are always curious about how other teams have gone about building new ballparks," team President Brian Auld told the Times. Since getting permission nearly three years ago to look across the Bay, Auld said, "we have followed the process outlined by Tampa Bay’s elected officials."

• • •

David Greiff said his family spends a lot of time hanging out in the Battery. As he talks to a reporter, he is watching his three young children jump in the water on a splash pad in a wide-open public space next to the ball park.

"It’s not just baseball," said Greiff, 43, who lives in Atlanta but works nearby. "People are here all the time. It’s packed on weekends. During college football season, you have to make a reservation because all the bars are just packed."

That was the plan, Plant said.

"We didn’t do this," Plant said, gesturing out his window toward the Battery, "just to do that," he added, moving his hand to SunTrust Park.

Some have called the project little more than a mall attached to a stadium.

Not Gary Merlino, 62, and Dawn Schaarschmidt, 58, Rays fans from East Lake who made the trek to see the team’s first game at SunTrust.

"It’s like it’s own little city," said Merlino, as they strolled the streets of the Battery.

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It’s not an approach that would work in Ybor City, they said.

"You’d need to get more of Ybor’s authenticity," Schaarschimdt said. "Its roots."

The Braves footed every penny of the cost of Battery Atlanta and they control every inch of it. Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, on the other hand, has said he has no interest in getting into the development business.

"I’m not a landowner. I’m not a developer," Sternberg said in July when the Rays unveiled renderings for their ballpark. "I own a baseball team and I want to build a baseball stadium that’s here for 50 to 100 years."

The Rays listened to the idea at one point, though: JLL, the global real estate firm that helped the Braves acquire the vacant land to build in suburban Cobb County, pitched the Rays on a similar plan for land at the Florida State Fairgrounds east of Tampa. The Rays passed, determined to pursue their own vision of an urban ballpark that drives independent development in Ybor City.

"It’s exactly what the Braves wanted and they executed it perfectly," said Melanie Lenz, Rays chief development officer. "But if you use someone else’s model, you’re going to fail."

The Rays do like all the interchange they see in Battery Atlanta between the ballpark and the surrounding community.

At SunTrust, the Braves have two locations —Terrapin Taproom and First & Third — where fans can duck out of the game for a beer, barbecue or a fancy hot dog, then duck back inside the ballpark. The Rays are considering this kind of permeability along the 4th Avenue, northern edge of their proposed ballpark.

Battery Atlanta is impressive, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said, but he sees the promise of a Rays-Ybor City experience as even better.

"As nice as Atlanta is, it’s kind of Disneyesque and I don’t mean that in a negative way," Hagan said. "What makes Ybor City special is the authenticity, the flair. We can incorporate those elements into the entertainment district."

The mixed-use approach holds some appeal for St. Petersburg, which has adopted a new vision for the 85 acres that’s home to the Rays’ current ballpark, Tropicana Field.

City development administrator Alan DeLisle and his managing director Joe Zeoli visited Cobb County in 2016 and met with Plant. They came away impressed, especially with how the Braves developed Battery Atlanta and SunTrust Park at the same time.

"Is is it a good model? I think it is," Zeoli said.

If the team’s negotiations in Tampa falter, he noted, the Tropicana property may come back into play as a possible stadium site.

• • •

One thing that even critics see as a pleasant surprise is the relatively painless traffic flow and parking around SunTrust. There are 6,000 more parking spaces at the Battery than at Turner Field and 14 access points into the area. Turner Field had two.

The Braves have used technology to streamline parking, assigning each of their garages different street addresses so fans using smart phones can find their way quickly without circling for a space.

Fears of massive traffic jams were widespread, Plant said.

"It never happened."

Bradbury, no apologist for the deal, agreed.

"That’s absolutely true. There are so many ways to get to and from the ballpark. Traffic around game times are not that bad. Traffic was worse going to Turner Field."

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The Rays are looking closely at how the Braves manage congestion.

"They seem to be ahead of the curve," the Rays’ Lenz said.

Mass transit isn’t a serious option for Braves fans. A single bus line connects to the development. A planned bus-rapid transit system never materialized and Atlanta’s light-rail system doesn’t make it into Cobb County. Some residents there, in fact, have resisted mass transit links, citing concerns including the spread of crime from Atlanta.

The Rays have made it clear they would like as many mass transit options as possible for Ybor City, though the team has yet to take a public position on a proposed one-cent sales tax hike in Hillsborough for transportation projects.

• • •

Tim Lee has first-hand knowledge of how the passions surrounding professional sports and public spending can boomerang politically. Spearheading the Battery Atlanta project cost him re-election in 2016.

"Oh, yeah," he said.

Still, he has no regrets.

"It was a small price to pay for my community," said Lee, who now works as executive director with a development agency in north Georgia. "I think history will show that is was a good thing for Cobb. It leapfrogged us above some other areas of the Atlanta region. It brought a lot of attention to us."

Plant, not surprisingly, speaks highly of Lee.

"There should be a statue of him," he said. "He was a government leader with a vision."

Lee doesn’t see that happening.

"I’ve got a brick," he said. "That’s good enough for me."

Commissioner Hagan has been the point man on a new Rays stadium among elected leaders in Hillsborough.

Lee has some advice for him:

"He’s got to make sure he looks at it as a business deal, not an emotional deal. He should feel good about it and try to work and make it happen just like he would he would if was trying to relocate Hewlett-Packard."

Hagan agrees and said he’s learned from the pitfalls of the Braves’ fast-track approach.

"We’re extremely methodical," he said. "And we’re attempting to be as transparent as possible. Protecting the taxpayers, that’s paramount."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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