Planned Braves stadium move highlights race, class

For the Braves, abandoning downtown Atlanta for the suburbs

means moving closer to the team’s fan base and developing

money-making restaurants and amenities. Team officials say it’s

simply good business.

But the decision also highlights long-standing disparities over

wealth, where people live and transportation – all facets of life

connected to race and social class in Atlanta. The Braves will be

moving from an area that’s predominantly black and relatively poor

compared to whiter Cobb County – where the team says more

ticket-buyers live. Although it is long past segregation, the

hometown of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is far

from integrated, and the city’s politics, business and even sports

teams reflect that gap.

Consider what Rick Grimes views from his home blocks from Turner

Field each time there’s a game: fans, mostly white, streaming past

on the sidewalk.

”I would say the large majority of people who support the

Braves are white folks,” said Grimes, who is African-American.

While no one would reasonably accuse the Braves of making a

decision based on race or class, one scholar says major attractions

often migrate toward money.

”It becomes a class issue in a lot of ways,” said Larry

Keating, a Georgia Tech professor emeritus who has studied

Atlanta’s development. ”A lot of the primo stuff that is highly

valued by the society ends up going where the wealthiest areas

are.”

Team officials say they were looking at other factors. When

Atlanta did not negotiate terms acceptable to the Braves, the team

found a suburban government willing to pay for a chunk of the

proposed stadium. The Braves will also own the property around the

stadium, meaning it can develop restaurants and stores within

walking distance. There are few amenities around Turner Field. Team

officials say the new site would offer better transportation access

considering the majority of fans come from north of the city.

”We don’t look at the exact makeup of the race, religion factor

of that ticket buyer,” said Derek Schiller, executive vice

president of sales and marketing for the Braves. ”What we’re

concerned about as a business that sells tickets is where do our

ticket buyers come from? … We are moving closer to where the

majority of our ticket buyers come from.”

Like many cities, metro Atlanta has an urban core that includes

a large population of black residents and suburbs that are

typically whiter. Atlanta famously marketed itself as ”The City

Too Busy To Hate” as other Southern cities resisted integration.

But the city has long-standing racial divisions.

Once owned by media mogul Ted Turner, the Braves grew a national

fan base as their games were carried on cable systems around the

country on one of Turner’s TV stations. To support its argument for

leaving, the Braves released a map based on ticket sales data that

showed its fans were clustered in an arc north of downtown Atlanta

that ran through the suburbs.

That information also shows fans tended to purchase single-game

tickets at the highest rates in places that were several times as

rich as neighborhoods closest to the stadium and much whiter. Of

the communities with the ten highest sales rates, all but one were

north of the current stadium and had median household incomes

ranging from roughly $61,000 to $100,000. Those communities ranged

from 58 to 85 percent white, according to counts by the U.S. Census

Bureau.

For this analysis, The Associated Press examined last year’s

ticket sales by zip code as tallied by the Braves and compared it

with Census counts and estimates showing the population of adults

in those areas along with race and income. The analysis ignored zip

codes with less than 10,000 people and those more than 100 miles

from the current stadium. The comparisons are imperfect. The zip

code areas used by the Census do not perfectly align with postal

zip codes. The sales figures do not include season ticket

purchases, people who pay in cash or customers who refuse to supply

their addresses. Braves officials think the sample likely

undercounts suburban fans since at least some suburban commuters

presumably buy tickets using Atlanta work addresses.

In contrast to the Braves, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons decided to

remain downtown after Atlanta agreed to contribute $200 million in

tax money toward a $1 billion new stadium.

Some see class, not race, as the more relevant divide. C.J.

Stewart, who coaches Braves star Jason Heyward in batting, sees

poverty as a deterrent to ticket sales. He runs a charity that uses

baseball to teach students, many poor and from the city, about

life. Stewart’s coaching business is independent of the Braves.

”It’s hard to go to a Braves game when you’re hoping and

praying that your child graduates from high school,” he said.

Some suburban fans acknowledge the panhandling, barred windows

and vacant lots in the area around Turner Field make them wary. The

proposed stadium is near an exhibition center and a mall anchored

by a Costco and Sears.

”What I don’t like about the games, to be quite frank, is the

security aspect,” said Rocco Lionetti, who works with his brother

at a suburban Cobb garage. ”When you leave the stadium, you run to

your car because you don’t want to get mugged.”

Lionetti said his views are shaped by security concerns, not

race, and he would attend more games if the stadium was near bars

and restaurants.

One politician was criticized for invoking – whether

intentionally or not – racial politics when discussing the stadium.

The chairman of Cobb County Republicans, Joe Dendy, said in a

written statement that he rejected calls for bringing rail transit

to Cobb County. For years, much of the debate about MARTA has been

wrapped in racial politics. White communities surrounding Atlanta

rejected the transit system in votes during the civil rights era.

Surveys show the transit system’s customers are roughly 74 percent

black.

”It is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving

cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and

east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into

Cobb by rail from Atlanta,” Dendy wrote in a news release.

Dendy declined an interview, but said in an email that his

remark was not about race, but rather his opposition to a prior

rail project that was rejected by voters.

Four generations of E. Lee Sullivan’s family have lived in the

Mechanicsville neighborhood near Turner Field. She said she

understands the concerns of suburban fans, at least to a point.

”You know, you can dress it up and say it diplomatically and

say crime in the area, which really breaks down to `I’m scared a

black person is going to rob me,”’ said Sullivan, who is

black.

She acknowledged the neighborhood had a crime problem that she

blamed on poverty, not race. Sullivan blames Turner Field and its

massive parking lots for sapping the vitality of a commercial

district that once included a theatre, a bakery and a library.

”They ruined all that, they wiped that all out,” she said.

”Now they’re just kind of like, ok, we’re going someplace

else.”

Associated Press writers Jack Gillum in Washington; Mike

Schneider in Orlando, Fla.; and Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed

to this report.

Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rhenryAP .