Atlanta’s Flame, Extinguished

Last August, I wrote about the goofy idea that some Maryland politicians have of bringing the Olympics to the Baltimore-Washington area, centered around a 2024 bid that has already grown an Olympic organizing committee. There’s one key point of what I wrote last summer that I think is a pretty significant:

The cost of hosting the games goes far beyond a commitment to the bid, however. John Moag points out that Maryland has “the largest sports infrastructure in a 40-mile radius.” That may be true. However, the infrastructure that is required to host an Olympics is massive. We would be talking about an expansion of BWI, expansion of the Light Rail, Metro, and MTA Bus systems, road resurfacing and reconstruction, venue construction for other, non-existent venues. This would significantly increase capital spending projects over the course of the next twelve years at the expense of other, necessary capital projects.

Now I’d like to redirect your attention to Atlanta, site of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

The Atlanta Braves announced Monday they will leave Turner Field for a new 42,000-seat, $672 million stadium about 10 miles from downtown Atlanta in 2017. It’s not clear how much the proposed ballpark will cost taxpayers. 

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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…. 

….Turner Field opened as an 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 County Stadium. 

The old stadium was imploded and the site used as 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 ballparks in the major leagues. It hosted the 1999 World Series, 2000 All-Star Game and four National League Championship Series.

Naturally the 1996 Olympic Stadium, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build in time for 1996, followed by millions more in renovations to make it playable for the Braves, followed by even more taxpayer money in order to renovate it a few years ago, is about to get whacked:

The city of Atlanta will demolish Turner Field and rebuild in its place a large-scale development after the Braves leave for a new stadium in the suburbs in 2017, the mayor said Tuesday. 

Speaking at a news conference, Mayor Kasim Reed didn’t provide specifics on the future project, but made clear that the stadium would not be left vacant when the Braves depart. 

“We’re going to have a master developer that is going to demolish the Ted and we’re going to have one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had,” he said, referring to the stadium’s nickname.

Infrastructure has often been one of the key selling points of any Olympic apparatus. Often times Olympic venues are used as a carrot in order to obtain the much needed support of the private sector and elected officials for games funding. As I noted last year, to be accepted as a candidate city by the International Olympic Committee, bids have to demonstrate a significant investment commitment both within the private sector but also by governments at the national and local level. A Baltimore-Washington bid would require a significant commitment from both the Federal Government as well as from the Maryland and Virginia state governments, as well as local governments from Cecil County to Richmond, with every county in between. A Baltimore-Washington bid would commit the federal state and local governments to significant operating and capital outlays for a decade or more

The “or more” is where things get plucky. One of the more interesting articles that has been circulating as it relates to the Turner Field/Atlanta Olympics situation has been a July 2013 Atlanta Magazine article about the area around Turner Field and the impact that the stadium (as well as its predecessor) have had on the surrounding communities. 

A half century ago, this stretch of Georgia Avenue housed French’s Ice Cream, Austin’s Grocery, and a dozen mom-and-pop stores. Now there are just two operating concerns: Joe’s Laundry & Cleaners—whose owners triple-barricade themselves behind steel doors, metal grates, and burglar bars—and Fuwah Chinese Restaurant, cash only, where you walk up to a glass-shielded counter, place an order, and wait until the server slides a Styrofoam container of house lo mein through a narrow slot like it’s a sheaf of lottery tickets or a fifth of Evan Williams. 

It’s said the Braves generate a $100 million economic impact on metro Atlanta. But it doesn’t take an economist to conclude that little of the team’s monetary power is felt in the neighborhoods around the ballpark. 

The story of Turner Field and its neighbors is one of stunted vision, cynical opportunism, halfhearted reform efforts, and misguided renewal schemes. Millions of dollars have been squandered and hundreds of acres left vacant. Around here, thousands of people live below the poverty line while just a handful—some legally, some not—cash in, because it’s more lucrative to park cars on an empty lot eighty-one days a year than to clean up that lot, open a business, and operate it year-round.

I’d encourage you to read the entire thing because it really encompasses a number of good points about urban renewal, and government intervention in the free market economy. 
One of the key remnants from the Olympic Stadium/Turner Field construction was the idea that those behind the Olympic bid would, for a lack of a better term, buy off local residents around the site:

To mollify neighborhood residents, the Atlanta–Fulton County Recreation Authority and Olympic organizers made an offer: In exchange for the hassle of another stadium in your backyard, you’ll get a cut of the parking revenue—through the entire twenty-year duration of the Braves’ lease. 

The pact drove a wedge into already divided communities. Some residents accused lawmakers of buying them out, claiming the “impact fees” could not mitigate the problems created by the new stadium…. 

….Others, with can’t-beat-’em-join-’em pragmatism, collaborated with the developers who swooped in. Few matched the zeal of Dean, who helped create Summerhill Neighborhood Development Corporation (SNDC), an organization with the nonprofit status required to accept donated land and cash grants, making it an alluring partner for developers. The neighborhood received more than $50 million—in federal, local, and charitable funds—between 1990 and 1996

This venture degenerated into something that is very familiar to residents of Baltimore; some people were winners, some people were losers, and those who were politically connected 
So what does this have to do with Baltimore? Folks who are familiar with how politics in Baltimore and Maryland have worked over the last several decades pretty much know what the playbook is:
  • Governments come together to build multi-million dollar structures that the private sector would choose not to build themselves;
  • Elected officials decide who gets to be winners and who gets to be losers through the awarding the contracts and the establishment of set-asides for certain groups;
  • Taxpayers are shut out of the process virtually from its entirety, often rising up in opposition only long enough for certain subsets to get their piece of the pie;
  • At the end of the day nothing goes to plan and the government is “unexpectedly” on the hook for millions upon millions of dollars more than they originally indicated publicly.
Twenty years after the conclusion of the Olympics, Atlanta is going to be stuck demolishing a stadium that they spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and renovate over its twenty-year lifespan. The City of Atlanta, not having learned their lesson in the first place, has now committed to double-down on their original investment and invest hundreds of millions of new dollars in order to bring urban renewal to the area around the stadium after it is demolished in 2017.

Meanwhile areas around the stadium are continuing to languish, often in poverty.

Granted, the DC 2024 Bid as planners currently envision it do not call for the construction of a large number of venues in Maryland. The Olympic Stadium plan calls for a stadium inside the boundaries of DC. Venues for the games will be spread out across the Mid-Atlantic, and often existing venues are planned for reuse in some capacity. But that doesn’t change the fact that Maryland taxpayers are going to be on the hook for building something if this idea is to come to pass, and between the situation in Atlanta and the well-documented decaying of Olympic venues throughout history leads one easily to conclude what the future would hold for any Maryland based venues.

Maryland taxpayers have been on the hook for publicly financed facilities for far too long. It would be foolish for our elected officials to lead us headlong into another multi-billion dollar boondoggle that will leave nothing but socio-economic heartache, decaying structures, and budget shortfalls in its wake.

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