Black Communities Destroyed By Publicly Funded Stadium Swindles Are Fighting Back In A New Era Of Redevelopment
Since the early twentieth century taxpayers have footed the bill for private development in the form of sports stadiums, arenas, and other mega-event facilities.
According to Deadspin, 61 percent of the billions of dollars spent on stadium construction between 1909 and 2012 came from public coffers.
And yet the consensus among economists says that the public rarely profits from these massive investments, despite persistent claims by politicians and heads of chambers of commerce that stadiums and their ilk generate economic growth.
Just look at cases like Indianapolis, where public financing for the $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium has strapped the city with mounting debt in the hundreds of millions of dollars, instead of producing the $2.25 billion in economic growth and 4,200 jobs promised back in 2004.
Or Chester, Pennsylvania, a city where 33 percent of the population is below the poverty level but public funds were used to finance 97 percent of a $122 million soccer stadium that has yet to transform Chester as a former Governor predicted it would.
Or Detroit, whose government can’t pay public employee pensions or keep the street lights on but can somehow throw $261.5 million at a new hockey arena.
The list goes on.
While piles of academic research and reporting confirm the failure of such projects to deliver positive economic gains, there is less attention on the far-reaching, negative impacts these boondoggles can bring.
Atlanta, Georgia, offers a case in point. Four, actually.
In Atlanta, four stadiums––two for baseball and two for football––have not only spurred virtually no economic development for the surrounding neighborhoods, they’ve actually contributed significantly to the de-development of what were once thriving middle and working class Black communities.
Now one of those stadiums, Turner Field, is slated for redevelopment and residents are determined not to let history repeat itself.
Homes of Black families become “Home of the Braves”
Doristine Samuels remembers when Mechanicsville was a flourishing Black neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia, long before it became a depopulated food desert trapped between an interstate system and a baseball stadium.
“We only had one house key and we would keep it under the living room rug. We would come home and nothing was changed, nobody would steal anything,” she says.
Neighbors looked out for each other in Mechanicsville, a community established by railroad workers just south of downtown Atlanta after the Civil War. Part of the reason they were so close knit was that they rarely had any reason to leave their immediate surroundings.
Between Mechanicsville and five other adjacent neighborhoods, there were numerous corner grocery stores, big supermarkets, a fish market, drug stores, libraries, schools, a hospital, a movie theater, dry cleaners, and many other businesses that provided jobs and met nearly every conceivable need.
“When the Braves came, all that changed,” Samuels says.
In 1965, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. kept his campaign promise to bring a Major League baseball team to the city. That was the year construction was completed on the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the new home of the Braves. It was an $18 million project, paid for with parks and recreation tax dollars and built on land taken from owners through a federal urban renewal program.
Construction of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium wiped out an entire neighborhood that was adjacent to Mechanicsville, plus part of the still-existing Summerhill neighborhood. The simultaneous construction of the interstate displaced thousands more families from these predominantly Black neighborhoods south of downtown.
All in all, these projects destroyed over 10,000 more homes than they replaced.
“With no housing the people went different places and the businesses began to fail and moved on out,” says Geoff Heard, a long-time resident of Summerhill, a neighborhood directly west of the Braves stadium.
In 1940 the area had a population of 32,248. By 2011 that number had shrunk to 5,409.
Not only did businesses shut down, schools lost their students and closed, churches moved and took social services with them, and transportation became an obstacle for families bound in by the stadium’s expansive parking lots on one side and the expressway on the other. All of these factors sent Mechanicsville and the other stadium-area neighborhoods into an economic tailspin.
The Falcons join in
The same thing happened in the Black neighborhoods west of downtown when the Georgia World Congress Center was constructed in 1976 and expanded to include a football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons in 1992. Known as the Georgia Dome, the $214 million stadium was 100 percent publicly funded.
One of the host neighborhoods, called Vine City, was home to Alonzo Herndon, the first Black millionaire in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Vine City as an adult, and frequently held strategy meetings with other Civil Rights leaders at a local restaurant there. Like the neighborhoods south of downtown, those on the west side were economically stable and culturally vibrant.
But between 1970 and 2000, Vine City lost two thirds of its population. Now the only thriving business is the illegal drug trade; a corner of Vine City known as The Bluff is the heroin capital of the world.
Given these histories, it was a hard sell for working class Black folks when Atlanta won the bid for the 1996 Olympic Games and proposed to build yet another stadium, this time right next to the Brave’s stadium south of downtown.
An Olympic-sized mistake
The Centennial Olympic Stadium plan called for even more land to be cleared of homes and businesses. When the games were over, the original stadium would be demolished and turned into a parking lot, while the Braves would move to the new stadium, rechristened Turner Field.
“The government has been a part of the destruction of these neighborhoods, and there they were with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, doing more of the same,” recalls Columbus Ward, who was instrumental in organizing Atlanta Neighborhoods United For Fairness (A’NUFF), which won concessions from the Olympic planners.
Like Samuels and Heard, Ward has lived most of his life in the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium. He was galvanized to political action at age 12, when police shot an unarmed Black man––his brother-in-law––and sparked a riot that Ward likens to the Ferguson uprisings.
A’NUFF saved a school and a hospice care facility from the stadium’s wrecking ball and forced the city into an agreement that included fixing the sewer systems and sourcing unionized labor from the surrounding neighborhoods, among other benefits.
While the $207 million stadium was paid for with private Olympics funding, $30 million in capital improvements necessary for the projects were covered by federal and city funds. And the City of Atlanta agreed to be liable for future construction and maintenance costs up to $50 million.
Stadium jobs don’t pay the bills
Despite some neighborhood wins during the run up to the Olympics, Turner Field’s legacy has been one of further economic devastation. Even after construction was completed, many people were displaced as landlords found it more profitable to evict families, tear down houses, and operate ad hoc parking lots where homes used to be.
And once construction jobs dried up what was left were low-paying service industry jobs.
Samuels, the lifelong resident of Mechanicsville, knows that all too well. She’s worked as a security guard at Turner Field for nearly twenty years. She doesn’t make a living wage, doesn’t receive benefits, but what she does have to look forward to when she hits her twenty year anniversary is...free parking.
That’s right. No retirement plan. No paid vacation. Just free parking at her own job.
Until then, the perks of the job are limited to getting a photo taken with a baseball player if a secret shopper gives her a good review.
“It might be meaningful to others, but I would rather have a bonus so I could do what I want with it,” Samuels says.
A similar second coming of stadium development is playing out in Vine City. In 2013 the Atlanta City Council approved $200 million in construction bonds for a new, $1.2 billion football stadium with a retractable roof, situated directly next to the Falcons’ original football stadium, which is only twenty years old. Field of Schemes author Neil deMause estimated that the total public expense would amount to $554 million after calculating debt repayments and other costs.
Neighborhood organizations won a $30 million Community Benefits Agreement, but rather than designating the money for specific uses, the deal set up two $15 million funds––one controlled by the city’s economic development agency, the other by Home Depot founder and Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Neighborhood organizations can apply for a grant from the funds, but ultimately can’t control how the money is allocated.
An early casualty of the stadium was a 108-year-old church established by former slaves. An uncertain future faces other neighborhood hallmarks, like Morris Brown, a historically Black college where W.E.B. Dubois taught. Earlier this year the school escaped bankruptcy by selling most of its campus to the city, which has yet to announce plans for redevelopment.
Small groups of men where a government should be
Larry Keating, an urban studies professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, attributes Atlanta’s mind-boggling repetition of destructive development to generations of elected officials submitting to corporate control, with little to no consideration for the lives of working and middle class people.
“Almost all the important policy decisions that have guided the city over the past several decades have been made not by government itself but by small groups of men––sometimes just two men––in private meetings...What planning the governing elite has engaged in has been ad hoc and superficial. City leaders have generally been reluctant to give careful consideration to the broader effects of their projects,” he writes in his 2001 book Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion.
“This stuff has been going on for fifty years and it’s meant the destruction of low-income, African American neighborhoods in this city. You’d think by now they would want to do it right, especially with all the Black mayors we’ve had,” Ward says.
But now Turner Field is in for a third phase of redevelopment marked, so far, by these same conditions.
In 2013, the Braves announced they would move to Cobb County, a northern suburb of Atlanta, by the 2017 season. County officials struck a backroom deal with the team to build a new stadium with $450 million in public funds. No matter that the county had just fired 182 teachers because of budgets cuts.
The Braves’ announcement threw the future of Turner Field and the surrounding neighborhoods into a limbo full of both possibility and uncertainty. Neighbors began to mobilize, and so did developers.
From the get-go, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been two-timing between them.
A chance to do better
Last year, the city applied for and received a grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative (LCI), which provides planning grants that come with a process for bringing community leaders, elected officials and developers together.
Shortly after, the Tuner Field Community Benefits Coalition (TFCBC) was born. The group is comprised of 36 organizations from six neighborhoods surrounding the stadium. TFCBC has championed the LCI process and will take part as the entity representing the communities’ interests.
But while the LCI process is underway, Reed has declined to halt backroom talks with developers who have no interest in collaborating with the communities.
First the mayor was entertaining a proposal put forth by Georgia State University, which already owns large swaths of downtown and wants to build another, yes another, stadium next to Turner Field.
More recently, Reed announced that he’s fielding proposals from several gaming companies that want to put a casino on the property. He insisted he wasn’t sold on the idea but said that not considering it would be “fiscal malpractice.”
So far, the City Council hasn’t taken a stand for TFCBC and that’s unlikely to change. The council rarely opposes the mayor, or developers for that matter.
“They’re treating us like a commodity, not a community,” Samuels says about the city government.
She’s a member of TFCBC and was among sixty people who delivered a letter to the Reed’s office in July. The letter called on the mayor to meet with TFCBC, publicly commit to the LCI process, and discontinue backroom dealings.
The mayor has not responded to the letter, nor has he met with members of TFCBC.
But that’s not slowing them down. The coalition is growing, and already people are sharing ideas about what Turner Field could become. Grocery stores, clothing shops, movie theaters––all the things that the older generation remembers and a younger generation has missed out on are topics of conversation between neighbors.
Samuels, Ward and Heard note some of the things they personally would like to see replace the stadium, but they aren’t willing to own those ideas just yet, not until the whole community has agreed upon a shared vision. That’s what the LCI process can give us, they say, if our elected representatives just let it work.