When the Colorado Rockies anointed a rundown, neglected patch of property in lower downtown Denver as the site of the franchise's new ball park some 20 years ago, few envisioned the dramatic renaissance the project would stimulate.
What was once a strip of dive bars and broken glass warehouses is today a vibrant community in which the population has fully tripled and business — from fashion boutiques and restaurants to emerging technology firms and consultancies — has boomed. Make no mistake: that stadium, financed primarily through public sources, was the unique catalyst that made this dramatic economic revival possible.
Atlanta, as it grapples with two of its own stadium development projects across the city, would do well to remember this Rockies lesson. The recent decisions by a pair of Atlanta's professional sports franchises, the Braves and the Falcons, to presently decamp for new stadiums has incited a sometimes-rowdy debate about the value of these venues to the city and county that will host them.
So far, this debate has been dominated by loud and uninformed critics. But as the former chief of staff of the City of Atlanta, I have some experience on the complicated matter of stadium development.
It was during my tenure in City Hall that Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics, for which the imposing Centennial Olympic Stadium was constructed to serve as the games' axis. Months later that venue was reimagined as Turner Stadium, built to house the Braves. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the Braves' stadium-as-a-catalyst for investment proved to be a lost opportunity (hopefully to be corrected when the redevelopment plans for the soon-to-be-vacated stadium are revealed).
After my work with sports venues at City Hall, it was my good fortune to assist the City of San Diego in its negotiations to create Petco Park – which, like Denver, did utilize its ballpark to redevelop the neighborhood that lingered mostly undeveloped for years.
Whether one believes it appropriate or not, the natural order of stadiums is to be constructed and reconstructed, each iteration, if done smartly, should introduce a jolt of new life and unique flavor.
On a base quantifiable level, both in Denver and San Diego, the ballparks' original construction and later their redevelopment projects injected millions of dollars in the local economy and created hundreds of well-paying jobs.
But the esoteric question of value — that is, their immeasurable emotional and reputational worth — is a different question and one deserving full consideration. Atlanta's professional teams and the stadiums that house them are a profound source of pride for the city, a draw to tourists national and international alike.
Two decades later, some in these parts have forgotten, or willfully ignore, this truth. Just don't count me among them.
That's why, some twenty years later, I'm fortunate to find myself involved in yet another major stadium development project: the Atlanta Falcons' move from the aging Georgia Dome to the adjacent Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The new stadium, situated at the foot of the former, will exist on Atlanta's downtown cityscape as an architectural landmark. Its eight-petal roof can retract in eight-minutes-flat, exposing its 71,000 fans seated beneath to the sunshine above. It will also serve as a model of sustainability that will operate in part by solar energy.
Even amid a small, but vocal, chorus of critics, the public has kicked in to make the project a reality. In my view, their contributions — an investment in our city's notoriety — will be honored and rewarded,.
Already, corporate partners and investment are enthusiastically streaming into the Westside area by outside interests who wish to capitalize on the new stadium, sharing in the vision that newly constructed stadiums can assist in the revitalization of neighboring communities.
Not only does this new commerce mean expanded revenues for state and local governments, but also quality jobs in a community that desperately requires them.
In the same way that Rockies' Coors Field and Petco Park catalyzed an economic renaissance in once-blighted downtown Denver and San Diego, the Falcons' new stadium means new promise for its underserved neighbors of the Westside community and Atlanta at large.
Stadiums, and all that they represent, radically reshape their communities for the better — and Atlanta is about to be the beneficiary of this project.
Steven Labovitz is a senior partner in the global law practice Dentons. A former chief of staff of the city of Atlanta, he specializes in economic development at the intersection of business and government. This blog first appeared in The Saporta Report.