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Unprecedented growth highlights year off the field

One year later, SunTrust Park begins to take shape

Nov. 11, 2014

Part I of IV: By Jared Burleyson

Read Part IV | Read Part III | Read Part II
Watch: SunTrust Park, Year 1 time lapse »

As the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta Braves' announcement to move to a new world-class ballpark and adjacent mixed-use development passes, Executive Vice President of Business Operations Mike Plant and Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing Derek Schiller sat down to discuss the move and the progress made over the past 12 months. The two are just a pair of the many executives and partners who are working to bring this project to fruition.

The idea started in 2005. A one-stop destination for all things eating, shopping, living and entertainment. A one-stop destination for all things Braves.

Ten years later, that idea is finally taking shape. Not on the streets surrounding Turner Field as was originally intended, but 12 miles up the road in the Cumberland District of Cobb County, home of the newly minted SunTrust Park and an adjacent mixed-use development.

It's been a full year since the Braves announced their intentions to forgo extending their lease on Turner Field and develop a new place to call home, and the last 12 months have served as the starting gun for what will be a three-year marathon to Opening Day 2017.

"We've made a tremendous amount of progress in the year since we've made our announcement that we'll be relocating our ballpark to Interstates 75 and 285 in April of 2017," said Derek Schiller, a Braves executive and one of the principal visionaries on the project. "There's been an enormous amount of activity both in the design of the ballpark and what it will ultimately become as well as all of the additional fan experience items, not the least of which will include a significant mixed-use development adjacent to the ballpark."

Perhaps the main incentive for a new home, though, is the ability for the Braves to offer year-round entertainment that transcends nine innings a game for 81-plus days over the course of a year, completely revolutionizing the ballpark atmosphere for fans.

"The key to understanding this is that we want this to become a destination in all of metro Atlanta and perhaps even the Southeast," Schiller said. "We're building an experience that extends well beyond the confines of the ballpark and putting it to a broader mixed-use development community for those that want to come early for a game or stay later, and all of the other entertainment and retail, residential and office opportunities inherent in that development."

Change, though, is a scary thing. The Braves have spent their entire 49-year history in the city of Atlanta just south of downtown, creating memories in the hearts and minds of Braves Country from two little plots of land. It's where Hank hammered. It's where Sid slid. And it's where the team of the '90s had its world championship.

While frightening, change is also inevitable, and not intrinsically negative. Without it, Atlanta wouldn't have a baseball franchise to begin with, as the Braves would still be splitting a fan base in Boston where the club's storied history began.

"One of the things that we realize in our business is that there are deep emotional connections and emotions that come out when you talk about the Atlanta Braves," Schiller said. "There's always going to be a certain percentage of people that may disagree with this decision, and we respect them and want them to be long-term Braves fans as well. Our hope is that when we open this ballpark and mixed-use development and they go there for the first time, they understand the same vision that we are looking at and the rest of our supporters see as well."

And so it began.

Before shovel could meet dirt and the first brick could be laid, the administrative fine points of the project were agreed upon and solidified. Cobb County commissioners entered a memorandum of understanding with the team last November. Since then, various other agreements and approvals that are necessary to move forward with a project of this significance have occurred, spanning everything from zoning to permitting.

A major hurdle was again cleared May 27, when the Cobb County commissioners approved another aspect of the ballpark, this time unanimously supporting American Builders 2017 as the construction manager to oversee the construction of the new ballpark. Included in that was an assurance agreement, construction administration agreement, development agreement, non-relocation agreement and stadium operating agreement that combine to dictate the 30-year partnership between the Braves and Cobb County.

"We have signed up to be there for no less than 30 years, and there's not a company in Cobb County today that can make that type of commitment," said Mike Plant, another Braves executive heavily contributing to the project. "So we have a vested interest in doing this right, managing it right, building it right and obviously making sure that it becomes a destination for our fans that people can enjoy for many, many generations."

Despite approval from all five commissioners, several legal hurdles have provided pause to the process, including a challenge to the bonds that will help fund the ballpark. Challenges, though, are part of the process, and the last of those objections should be wrapped up by the middle of 2015.

"In a project of this magnitude, it's not unusual to have a certain amount of debate and even legal challenges," Schiller said. "That is expected, and it's extremely typical in the process. We're managing that and continue to have full faith in our partners in Cobb County, as well as knowing that we are progressing with everything the way it should be legally and continuing to make sure that this process with our fans is as transparent as it can possibly be."

"We're 100 percent confident that after we go through the process there will be a successful outcome," Plant added. "None of that is inhibiting us or distracting us from moving forward with our planning and our execution of both the mixed-use development and the ballpark project."

That was evident at the site itself, where site grading and preparation began following the initial approval last November. A trio of major gas pipelines was relocated beneath the surface of the site, including two that run from Maine to Houston. The Braves struck agreements with a number of companies to assist in the overall execution of the endeavor, including master land planner The Jerde Partnership, construction managers American Builders 2017 and overall project manager Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), who serves as overseer of the entire operation.

Atlanta's executive team also contracted Kansas City-based global architecture firm Populous to design the stadium, employing the designer of nine of the last 10 Major League baseball stadiums and designer of over 1,000 projects spanning three decades of work.

"As much as this has been driven by the Atlanta Braves, the key to the success of this project is that we have a huge team of experts all working together, along with a great partnership with Cobb County, who's making all of this work in a way that we've originally intended," Schiller said. Everybody's come to the table with the same motivation and the same goals, and that makes the project go so much smoother."

It all came to head in mid-September, when the Braves broke ground and introduced a naming-rights partner, officially beginning construction of SunTrust Park and signifying the beginning of another chapter in the history of baseball's longest continually operating Major League franchise. While the Braves are attempting to do something that no other professional sports team domestically or internationally has executed with the simultaneous construction of a ballpark and mixed-use development, such a quick progression over the first year of the project is unprecedented. It took slightly less than 39 months to complete the 36,000-seat Marlins Park, the shortest stadium project on record from top to bottom. Atlanta is attempting to construct a 41,000-seat ballpark and a million square feet of adjacent development in three short years, all the while ensuring that it's done in a way that will warrant its success for decades to come.

While the future holds exciting times, there is still business to be settled at 755 Hank Aaron Drive, where the team will complete two more seasons before making the 12-mile trek northbound.

The Braves are one year removed from a 96-win season and their 17th playoff appearance since 1991. Five players from that club were locked into contracts this past offseason that will keep them in Atlanta through the move to SunTrust Park, and the newly appointed president of baseball operations, John Hart, is actively working to bring the Commissioner's Trophy back to Braves Country.

"Our mission no matter where we're located, does not change," Schiller said. "Our mission and our goal every single year is to win a World Series and bring a championship to the city of Atlanta. That's our goal today at Turner Field, and that's our goal for the first year we open at the new facility in April 2017 and for every year after."

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