Atlanta Braves scouting nation for stadium ideas

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionJanuary 11, 2014 

Braves Stadium Baseball

The sun sets over Turner Field and a statue of Hank Aaron on Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, the day the Braves announced that they would be moving to Cobb County. (AP Photo/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray)

BEN GRAY — AP

ST. LOUIS -- For three hours on a cold winter afternoon, a group of Atlanta Braves executives toured just about every nook and cranny of the St. Louis Cardinals' stadium, carefully navigating patches of snow and ice in the hibernating ballpark.

Mike Plant took note of the wide concourses. Derek Schiller seemed intrigued by the private club spaces and the revenue they generate. Frank Wren was drawn to the training facilities of a team that has won the World Series twice since 2006. They and six other Braves officials also donned hard hats to inspect Ballpark Village, a long-delayed and scaled-back restaurant/entertainment complex under construction across the street from 8-year-old Busch Stadium.

It was all part of the Braves' most important scouting expedition of this off-season -- a nationwide search not for players but for ideas to incorporate into the stadium and mixed-use development the team plans to build in Cobb County.

The stop in St. Louis, the third on a four-cities-in-three-December-days trip, provided insight into the countless decisions the Braves must make in designing a stadium and the considerable challenges they will face in assembling an adjacent development.

The trip included visits to baseball stadiums in Minneapolis and Kansas City and an NFL stadium in Indianapolis. In bone-chilling Minneapolis, Twins officials greeted their guests with a message on 4-year-old Target Field's video board: "Welcome to Minnesota. Hope you're enjoying Braving the weather." Two weeks earlier, the Braves' contingent toured the Dallas Cowboys' stadium. More visits are planned to stadiums and developments on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

"In each stadium we go to, there are nuggets we find," said Schiller, the Braves' executive vice president of sales and marketing, who made notes on his iPad as he toured Busch Stadium.

For their new stadium -- slated to open in 2017 at a cost of up to $672 million, including $300 million in Cobb County taxpayer money -- the Braves say they'll borrow elements from many venues but replicate none.

"We want to do something different," Plant, the Braves' executive vice president of business operations and the point person on the stadium project, said as he stood on the snow in front of the Cardinals' dugout and peered across expanses of red seats.

One huge difference is where the Braves are putting their stadium: the suburbs, bucking a long trend among Major League Baseball teams of building in the city center.

The Cardinals also explored suburban locations and at one point said they were close to a deal to build across the Mississippi River in Illinois. But after a difficult, years-long process -- more typical of stadium negotiations than the Braves' secret, speedy deal with Cobb -- the Cardinals reached an agreement that included tax breaks to stay in downtown St. Louis next to the site of their former home, Busch Memorial Stadium.

The Braves say their new stadium near Cumberland Mall will reflect changes beyond geography.

"We're not going to build Turner Field in our new location," Schiller said. "There have been a lot of advancements, and it's going to be a completely different overall approach."

The changes to the stadium itself almost certainly won't be as dramatic as when the Braves moved from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to Turner Field in 1997. That came during a trend toward ditching the circular, multi-purpose stadiums of the '60s and '70s and creating baseball-specific venues with field-hugging dimensions, better sight-lines and built-in "character."

Still, the Braves say they expect to revamp the model. They plan about 8,000 fewer seats than at Turner Field, hoping for a more intimate and energetic stadium that will be filled more often. They envision fewer suites but more private club areas where fans can mingle and dine. They say a lot of other ideas are in the preliminary stages.

But the transformative difference -- if they pull it off -- will be a surrounding 45-acre mix of shops, restaurants, bars, residences, offices and a hotel. The aim is to seamlessly connect the development to the ballpark and extend the fan experience (and team revenue streams) long before and after games and even to non-game days.

"We're not just building a stadium," Plant said. "It has to be a destination. At least 81 times a year we will play baseball there. But it has to work the rest of the year."

Visiting Ballpark Village

Toward that end, the Braves' entourage was eager to see the Cardinals' Ballpark Village, where workers race to finish construction of the first phase of the development across Clark Street from the stadium. The complex, which is on the footprint of the stadium's demolished predecessor, is scheduled to open in April after years of delays and a considerable down-sizing to 100,000 square feet.

When their stadium opened in 2006, the Cardinals promised a mixed-use development of restaurants, bars, shops, offices and residences. And when it stalled for a variety of reasons -- the Great Recession, office-tenant deals that fell through, uncertain demand for more downtown housing -- the once-lofty plans drew derision locally.

Finally, early last year, the Cardinals and their partner, Baltimore developer Cordish Companies, broke ground on a $100 million first phase of restaurants and entertainment spaces after securing $17 million in state and local tax incentives for that portion.

The Cardinals hope more development, eventually including an office tower, will follow on a 10-acre site that for now is mostly surface parking.

"We see this as a game changer in terms of the urban landscape downtown," said Ron Watermon, the Cardinals' director of public relations and civic affairs. "Our hope is that by getting this out of the ground, those future phases will come quickly as people see what is going on."

The first phase will be anchored by a three-level Cardinals Nation venue -- which will include a restaurant, team Hall of Fame and 330 rooftop seats with views into the stadium -- and a two-story Budweiser Brew House. Phase 1 also will feature an event plaza with a retractable glass roof, as well as a cowboy-themed bar, a dueling piano bar, a sushi restaurant and a frozen-custard place.

The Braves have a much larger $400 million development in mind, and they vow to open much of it simultaneously with the stadium -- a feat no team has achieved.

Even after seeing and hearing the Cardinals' challenges, Braves officials insisted they still aspire to open 700,000 to 1 million square feet of their development in 2017. They cited metro Atlanta's population, which is about double metro St. Louis', and the vitality of the Cumberland-Galleria area.

"The dynamics of downtown St. Louis are very different than the dynamics of metro Atlanta," Schiller said.

Focus on stadium details

The St. Louis tour reflected the duality of the Braves' project, with attention split between stadium and adjoining development.

Inside Busch Stadium, which is more connected to the downtown business district than Turner Field and features a brick facade with arched openings and exposed steel, Braves officials might have missed the views of the iconic Gateway Arch. Their attention was drawn to details such as counter top surfaces in suites and the paint on the railings. (Scuffing is a big problem in ballparks.)

They did notice framed photos of the Cardinals celebrating two World Series championships since the stadium opened, in 2006 and 2011.

"We've got to get a couple of these," Plant said.

High above the field, one of several Cardinals executives guiding the tour pointed out that the team raised the price of a section of seats by $100 per game by including access to a club area with food and beverage. The section even commanded personal seat licenses -- one-time fees for the right to buy season tickets -- of $2,500 to $3,500.

"We're still not going to do it," Plant said of PSLs, which the Braves have disavowed.

Wren, the Braves' general manager, broke free from his winter work of acquiring players and negotiating contracts to join his front-office colleagues in Kansas City and St. Louis. His focus was different than theirs.

"I've been to both parks before, but I've never been in the home clubhouse or home baseball facility," Wren said. "That's the biggest interest to me."

He inspected the Cardinals' clubhouse, weight room, video room, indoor batting cage and manager Mike Matheny's office, which has the quote "Good Is the Enemy of Great" stenciled on a wall.

Although his role in the stadium project is limited, Wren knows what he likes in baseball parks: His favorites, he said, are in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Baltimore.

Braves officials are joined on the tours by the team photographer, whose photos of features of various stadiums will be used in the design process. Also accompanied at times by their real-estate and architecture consultants, the Braves plan to hire a lead architect for the stadium this month and are in the process of selecting a developer for the mixed-use complex.

There is much to do: more stadiums to see, financing to arrange, definitive contracts to negotiate with Cobb County, naming rights to sell, countless large and small decisions to make.

"It's exciting," said Schiller, warming up in the lobby of a hotel near Busch Stadium after a long, cold day. "But it's intense."

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