SI Vault
Roy Blount Jr.
March 21, 1977
While Boomtown Atlanta grows in splendiferous ways, Sportstown Atlanta attempts to outgrow its shabby reputation
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March 21, 1977

Losersville, U.s.a.

While Boomtown Atlanta grows in splendiferous ways, Sportstown Atlanta attempts to outgrow its shabby reputation

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"Don't you think you're spreading yourself too thin?" a reporter asked Turner the other day.

"Oh hell, yes," he answered happily.

Turner seems to rejoice in desperate situations. "It'd be easier to get Hitler elected President of Israel than to bring the Hawks back!" he cries along the buffet line. "But we're going to do it. I wouldn't've taken over the Confederate Army until we were on the steps of the courthouse at Appomattox!"

Tom Cousins, an Atlanta real estate developer who sold his interest in the Hawks to Turner, recalls that one day he walked into Turner's office "and his whole face was a scab. I said, 'What in the world happened to you?' He pulled a baseball out of his desk drawer. It was covered with blood. What had happened was that he'd had all these events between the Braves and the Phillies before a game, dribbling a basketball around the bases and things. The last event was rolling a baseball from base to base with your nose. None of his players wanted to do it. So he did it. And the ball apparently got off in some gravel.... He beat the Phillie guy hands down."

It's going to take a lot of hard-nosed rooting to turn the Atlanta sports situation around. The Braves have a long way to go from last year's sixth-place finish. The Hawks are struggling out of last place in their division. The Flames are one of hockey's youngest teams, and while they show promise and should make the Stanley Cup playoffs, they are not quite the Montreal Canadiens. The Hawks are likely to cost their investors over a million dollars this season, and the Flames the same. And the Falcons—the most groaned-about organization of all—declined to give Joe Thomas, who rebuilt the Baltimore Colts, enough control over the operation to entice him into their front office as general manager, settling instead for retired Quarterback Eddie LeBaron, who had been out of football for 13 years.

Atlanta has dynamism like Boston has beans. It bristles with downright Kubla Khanian new hotels, jut-jawed new office buildings, diverse and fancy new places to drink, eat, shop, get your shoes shined toplessly and listen to live music. How can such a town's sports have become so deflated?

One thing to bear in mind is that while Boomtown Atlanta is too substantial to be called a bubble, it does enfold a number of vacant spaces. There are literal holes at the core of Atlanta—the Underground, for instance. Years ago, a stretch of downtown was developed along a viaduct built over railroad tracks, leaving a sub-street-level cavity that for decades was a murky refuge for winos. In the '60s this pocket of the past was transformed into a manifold arcade of restaurants, souvenir shops and niteries. For a time Underground Atlanta was a cavern bustling with street life; lately, however, locals say that they leave it to "the tourists and the muggers."

The first one of those Hyatt House Regency hotels with the lobbies that go straight to the roof was built in Atlanta. People have committed suicide by jumping from their floors to the lobby. Now subway tunnels are being dug downtown. A city like, say, Cincinnati is what it is—chunky, uninfected. Atlanta has these interesting recesses.

And it currently is in a big recession. The impressive skyline, as chockablock as it looks, is in fact something of a souffl�. Although it can by no means be dismissed so flatly as Gertrude Stein dismissed Oakland, there is less there than meets the eye. In the '60s when Atlanta was the hottest growth town in the country, too many office buildings, apartment houses and hotels were built. It will be a long time before all that space is filled. Some landlords are now offering a year's free rent on a five-year lease to lure tenants from other buildings. At least one vaunted development complex would now be bankrupt if the banks holding the mortgage could afford to take over the burden of its deficit.

The town's real estate speculators are also sucking wind. Many of them invested their big '60s profits in land lying farther and farther out in surrounding areas. When tight money and realism hit, the speculators were left holding big debts and wide-open spaces that nobody will be building on soon. This arrest in development also hit the construction industry hard, and resulted in large-scale unemployment.

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