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Volume 21 No. 26
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Georgia State raising its visibility with retrofit of Turner Field

Turner Field undergoes retrofitting to transform from a baseball park to a college football stadium.
Nearly 1 million cars pass historic Turner Field on a business day in Atlanta. Pretty soon, all of that traffic will go right by Georgia State University’s new football stadium, providing the school with unprecedented exposure and branding as it looks to boost its athletic programs.

Turner Field, the longtime baseball home to the Braves, is being turned into one of the most distinctive venues in college football through a series of modifications by architectural firm Heery International. Beginning this season, it will become home to the Panthers.

The transformation is part of a $100 million project that is being phased in over the next three to four years, but the former Turner Field, now known as Georgia State Stadium, will be football-ready by the Panthers’ season opener on Aug. 31. Not only will the venue provide Georgia State with a unique urban setting for its home games in the shadows of downtown Atlanta, the stadium is considered a vital component to raising the school’s athletic profile in a hypercompetitive pro and college market.

A rendering shows how Georgia State Stadium will look on game night this fall.
“This gives us a very identifiable landmark,” said Charlie Cobb, Georgia State’s athletic director who is beginning his fourth season at the downtown Atlanta school. “This is an iconic stadium and piece of sports history in Atlanta. For a long time, it has served as the gateway to the city for anyone coming from the airport or from the south.

“For Georgia State to now own that real estate, it’s a bricks-and-mortar front door for a campus that’s growing every day.”

Georgia State Stadium marks the third iteration for the facility, which originally was constructed to be the site for the opening ceremony and track and field competition at the 1996 Olympics. For the next 20 years, Turner Field was the Braves’ home until the MLB team moved across town into SunTrust Park this season.

Now comes Georgia State, which partnered with Atlanta real estate developer Carter USA to buy the 68 acres on and around the stadium’s site for $30 million. The school controls the land where the stadium is, as well as the property where a new GSU baseball stadium will be built in the coming years. Athletics offices, football operations, meeting rooms, locker rooms and weight rooms will be added in the future. Carter will develop the rest of the property with retail and residential areas.

Heery, an Atlanta firm that worked on Turner Field’s original design, is in charge of what lead designer Dane Hawthorne calls “the repurposing of Turner Field” into a 25,000-seat football facility, with the capability of expanding to 35,000.

“This is not a place where you’re going to be playing football in a baseball stadium,” Hawthorne said. “This is playing football in a football stadium.”

In what has become the Year of the Stadium in Atlanta — both SunTrust Park and Mercedes-Benz Stadium open this year — Georgia State’s renovation project on the south side of downtown might not attract the same spotlight as a completely new building. But the task of retrofitting a historic baseball venue into a distinctly football stadium came with its share of challenges.

First and foremost was the timeline. Georgia State, a school with 32,000 students, took control of Turner Field on Jan. 1, giving Heery just eight months to make the modifications. And while it’s not a complete rebuild, it’s much more than a facelift.

New seating is being constructed on the east side, new Panther blue seats are being turned so they face the 50-yard line instead of home plate, dugouts are being removed to create improved sight lines for the fans closest to the field, and locker rooms have been built. In baseball, seats go down to the field level, but that doesn’t work for sight lines in football. Fans have to be able to see over the players on the sideline, so that required the removal of eight rows closest to the field.

The expansive home locker room for the Panthers is a massive 55 yards long by 15 yards wide with no partitions or columns interrupting its flow. The room was created by tearing down a wall that used to separate two old locker rooms.

“We’ve gotten to a point where the lifespan of a stadium has shrunk to about 20 years,” said Todd Ballew, vice president at Heery. “From the standpoint of being able to repurpose a major venue, it’s definitely a good thing. Very satisfying.”

The stadium repurpose comes at a pivotal point for the young football program, which started in 2010 and whose only winning record came during a 6-5 inaugural season. Cobb hired Shawn Elliott as head coach beginning this season and the school is banking on the momentum of the new coach and renovated stadium to inject some much-needed life into the program.

The Panthers averaged just 15,103 fans last season in the cavernous Georgia Dome, and getting the team into a right-sized stadium was further motivation for the school.

The renovation’s first phase, which is primarily the work on the stadium, will cost around $40 million. Subsequent phases include a new baseball stadium for $10 million, a parking deck that will serve the students and athletics for $20 million and another $10 million to create offices, football operations, weight room and other spaces for Olympic sports programs.

Those costs reach $80 million and the purchase price of the stadium runs the total bill close to $100 million. The school does not plan to use state funds or tuition dollars to pay for it. Fundraising and revenue from premium spaces are expected to cover the costs.

It’s the closest thing to an athletic home Georgia State has had. Facilities have been spread around the city in the past, which brought on recruiting challenges for the Sun Belt Conference school.

“With the acquisition, we’re going to bring other sports closer to campus and create a facilities package that doesn’t exist now,” Cobb said. “We all know facilities speak to the commitment and the pride a school has in its programs. … Atlanta is a crowded sports market and we know we have to be competitive to build our fan base. That’s the opportunity that’s in front of us.”

One of the primary benefits to repurposing the stadium is that it has premium spaces already built in from when the Braves were there.

The University Club is a 21,000-square-foot space that sits atop the north end zone and provides donors at the $500-a-year level and up an indoor-outdoor area to watch the game.

Georgia State also will have access to 45 suites around the stadium. Those will range from $10,000 a year for a 16-seat suite to $12,500 for 20 seats, and they’re about two-thirds sold for the upcoming season, the school said.

Other revenue opportunities will come from naming rights to the stadium and the field, as well as three to five cornerstone sponsors. Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment holds the Panthers multimedia rights and will sell naming rights as well.

“When we’re walking corporate prospects around the stadium, it’s always interesting to see their reactions,” said Jason Capel, general manager for the Georgia State property. “We’ve been using the project as a sales carrot for a while, but now that they can see it taking shape, it blows their mind.”