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Race and Class Issues Unearthed in Braves' Stadium Move

By Ray Henry Associated Press | 12/16/2013, 10:50 a.m.
The Atlanta Braves' contract with Turner Field -- which was retrofitted for baseball after the 1996 Olympics -- expires in 2016.

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 .