Usher Melvin Russ dances in the aisle during the sixth inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees at the Brave’s new stadium, SunTrust Park, in Atlanta, Friday, March 31, 2017. (AP Photo/)
Photo: David Goldman
Photo: David Goldman

Cobb buries fraught history, embraces Atlanta with SunTrust Park

Friday is opening day for SunTrust Park and the Atlanta Braves, but it’s an opening day of sorts for Cobb County as well.

For many, the brand new red brick ballpark represents the closed-door deal that brought the Braves to Cobb at taxpayers’ expense to the tune of half a billion dollars.

But the stadium and surrounding mixed-use development also represent changes that have slowly erased some of the divisions that once separated Cobb County, long regarded as a white-flight bedroom community, from the city of Atlanta.

SunTrust Park is both cause and effect of the county’s increasing urbanization as a new generation of affluent, diverse and educated young professionals seek to combine the amenities of a city with the comforts of the suburbs.

Public backlash to the deal centered on its lack of transparency and commitment of public money to a billion-dollar sports franchise. Residents fretted about the potential traffic disaster, and sports economists questioned the promise of financial returns.

It also reignited old arguments about public transportation, policing and development that have historically been fraught with racial and political overtones in a county that was home to the state’s last openly segregationist governor, Lester Maddox, for whom the I-75 bridge from Atlanta to Cobb is named.

Irrespective of whether the stadium succeeds, fails or muddles along, people here say it has cemented the county’s relationship with the very city that for years it tried to keep at arm’s length.

“There was a time to speak badly of Atlanta was good politically, and I mean politically even in the Sunday school class,” said Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin, a lifelong Cobb resident. “Now I think you’ll see things change toward that. Not everybody, but as a whole, it’s pretty much there.”

Seeking the best of both worlds

Jaha Howard lives just a few miles from SunTrust with his wife and three young children. A dentist by profession, Howard, a Democrat, lost his bid for the 6th district state senate seat to Republican incumbent Hunter Hill last year, but swept the Cobb vote.

He called the old perception of Cobb a “dying sentiment.”

“My wife grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, I grew up in the city of Atlanta and we we were looking for the best of both worlds,” he said. “You find a whole lot of young families that want that same thing. They want to feel like they’re right in the city but still be just outside it.”

Despite his initial dismay over how the Braves deal was struck, Howard said the stadium has forced an important debate about the future of a changing Cobb.

“We have to challenge the assumption that it’s always about race because there are arguments about how we spend our money and safety and those are real things,” Howard said. At the same time “We should be able to talk about safety and race and transportation and whether or not these things intersect and where they intersect. The Braves stadium is just helping us facilitate that conversation.”

Howard also expressed hope the stadium and The Battery would attract investment and bolster rising property values.

Rich Pellegrino, a local activist and outspoken critic of the Braves deal, is still skeptical. He’s not worried about the changing identity of Cobb — Pellegrino formerly headed the Cobb Immigrant Alliance—but rather what he has characterized as “corporate welfare” for the Braves.

“It’s a boondoggle and we’re going to be paying for it forever,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that much of the popular anger surrounding the stadium has worn off.

“Some might feel euphoric now that it’s here,” he said.

Former Chairman Tim Lee, the architect of the deal, was voted out last year by voters angry over his handling of the Braves’ move to the county. The county commission rushed to approve the pact just two weeks after it was announced following several heated public meetings. In the years since, the ancillary costs of the stadium, such as infrastructure, have risen, while voter-approved parks went unfunded.

Lee could not be reached for comment.

His successor, Chairman Mike Boyce, was elected on the back of resentment over the Braves, but has pledged to be a constructive partner to the team. Recently, Boyce hailed the stadium as a “major economic driver” that would allow the county to bring in revenue and keep property taxes low.

“The Braves’ relocation to Cobb showed great confidence in the county’s ability to handle a project of this magnitude,” Boyce said. “We’re part of a jewel in the metro area and we are planning to keep this jewel polished and shining brightly.”

Old tensions surface

SunTrust Park and The Battery might be the largest economic development gamble in the county’s history. Since the opening of the Bell Bomber plant in World War II and, later, Lockheed, Cobb has largely been shaped by the construction of interstate highways in the 1960s and 1970s that allowed commuters access to Atlanta while preserving the county’s diffused residential character.

It also helped keep Cobb lily white for many years following desegregation. In 1965, Cobb was the only one of the five metro counties to vote against the creation of MARTA.

The county even went so far as to create a 10-foot-wide city called Chattahoochee Plantation as a buffer against Atlanta. The legislator who spearheaded the effort suggested putting alligators in the Chattahoochee to keep Atlanta on its side of the river.

Over the years, Cobb’s suburban charm and strong schools helped attract new residents. Its prosperity was fueled by the growth of higher education, culminating in the consolidation of Kennesaw State University, and the rise of a commercial corridor along I-75 from Cumberland.

In 1980, the county was home to 300,000 people, 95 percent of them white. By 2010, Cobb had ballooned to 700,000 people and was just 62 percent white. Some have predicted that by 2020, it will be a majority-minority county.

Retired Kennesaw State historian Tom Scott, who wrote a book about Cobb County, said it has outgrown its reputation of 30 years ago.

“We’ve gone beyond the suburban stage to increasing urbanization,” he said. “I know some people in downtown Atlanta are still hurt the Braves moved out, but they just need to claim us as part of them and understand that we really are part of the metropolitan area.”

The Cumberland area where the stadium is located is also home to the Cobb Galleria Centre, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Home Depot, HD Supply, Travelport and the Cumberland Mall, in addition to hotels and condos. There are at least another five Class A office buildings in the pipeline.

If the stadium marks a new era of urbanization for Cobb, it has also forced it to confront its troubled legacy, particularly in the areas of public transportation and policing.

When the Braves’ decision was announced in 2013, the head of the Cobb Taxpayers Association said it was a ruse to route MARTA into Cobb, bringing “crime” with it. The then-chairman of the Cobb Republican Party echoed those fears.

The traffic and transportation plan put together by the Braves and the county has focused on parking and ride-sharing. Bus service on CobbLinc is available from MARTA’s Arts Center station to the Cumberland Transfer Center, where visitors can catch a shuttle to the stadium. Cobb public transit does not run on Sunday, however.

Furthermore, the collapse of a portion of I-85 has underscored how vulnerable metro Atlanta’s car infrastructure is, and raised concerns that traffic to the Cumberland area will be even worse than it already is. Cobb is now considering what would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Recently, the county commission passed a resolution calling on the state to maintain control of the Western and Atlantic railway through Cobb “given the long-range interests in exploring passenger rail connectivity.”

“All the Braves have done is they’ve accelerated that conversation” on transportation, Chairman Boyce said. “We need to start talking about addressing this traffic issue on a regional basis.”

There is also the logistical challenge of providing security for the stadium. In 2014, Cobb’s public safety director resigned, saying the Braves would require millions in upgrades to police, fire and emergency dispatch.

Steve Gaynor, head of Cobb Fraternal Order of Police, warned of growing frustration among Cobb law enforcement over staffing shortages, despite renewed hiring.

“We’ll make it work with what we got. Will folks be happy? Probably not,” he said.

‘We really do like it’

Tricia Strack, a pharmacist from Kennesaw, said she took her kids to games at Turner Field and is excited the Braves will be closer to home. But she also said traffic in the metro area is bad already, and ongoing construction around the stadium could deter visitors.

“I think the congestion is making some people nervous and it makes me wonder how popular that area is going to get before it’s all done,” she said.

Strack said she was originally drawn to the area because of its affordable home prices, noting that real estate around the stadium has gotten more expensive.

“What’s keeping us in Kennesaw is how much West Cobb is being built up and the Braves stadium and all these things going on in Cobb County,” she said. “We really do like it.”

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