Cobb County officials still don’t know how much Braves stadium cost, because they’re afraid to ask

The Atlanta Braves have played two seasons now at their new Cobb County stadium, but still no one knows how much the whole thing cost, because — I swear I am not making this up, and neither is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported it — nobody in the county has bothered to ask for all the receipts:

The Braves, who managed the stadium construction, say at $684 million, the ballpark exceeded its budget, with the team covering more than its share. But Cobb only has invoices covering $536 million, meaning there are roughly $148 million in construction costs for which Cobb officials have not reviewed receipts.

“We have invoices for all work that was the county’s responsibility to pay for,” the county said in a statement.

The county has the right in its contract to demand an audit of stadium expenses, but, according to one county commissioner:

Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who has been a consistent skeptic of the Braves deal, said there is little appetite on the board to damage the relationship with the team by asking “pointed questions.”

On the one hand, this probably isn’t a huge deal in the long run: The county knows where its $392 million went, and it isn’t getting any of that back unless the Braves’ share came in way under budget, which it almost certainly didn’t. Still, we don’t know how much our private partners are spending on this project because we don’t want to upset them by asking is pretty telling about elected officials’ usual approach to stadium deals.

Tampa commissioner shared secret Rays stadium site plans with developer who later donated to his campaign

In case you need reminding why WTSP-TV reporter (and former Shadow of the Stadium blogger) Noah Pransky is the best, he spent two years looking into Hillsborough County commissioner Ken Hagan’s behind-closed-doors talks with Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg on a new stadium deal — including following him around for an entire day while Hagan refused to answer questions — and yesterday came up with this:

However, the secret details of where Hagan and the Rays were planning to put a new stadium were not secret to every member of the public – one key developer was given access to the information that should have been available to all. Hagan had a county staffer draw up maps of the exact location in Ybor City, where the team is now campaigning to put the stadium, as far back as 2016.

The developer used that information to buy land at a discounted rate, put himself in position to profit off the new stadium announcement, then became a significant contributor to Commissioner Hagan’s re-election campaign. At no time were Hagan’s fellow commissioners – or members of the public who requested the public documents – provided the maps.

That is … holy crap, that is borderline solicitation of bribes, if Hagan actually leaked the information to the developer — Darryl Shaw, who got the information via Hagan’s paid consultant, Irwin Raij — with the intention of getting kickbacks from Shaw’s profit on the stadium land via Hagan’s campaign fund. And even if Hagan was just doing a favor for a friend and didn’t expect to get several thousand dollars in his campaign tip jar as a result, it’s an extraordinarily dereliction of public duty, and one that could conceivably result in criminal charges:

Ben Wilcox, research director for watchdog group Integrity Florida, says ethics violations are civil in nature and punishable with fines of up to $10,000. However, if law enforcement finds evidence of a quid pro quo where favors were exchanged, criminal corruption charges could follow.

“This should be thoroughly investigated,” Wilcox said. “The public’s money is being used to facilitate this deal, and for the public to have confidence their money is being used above-board, there needs to be complete transparency.”

Hagan has also received campaign checks from Sternberg and Major League Baseball officials, Pransky has previously reported. Even if all this isn’t technically illegal, hiding information from the public and your fellow commissioners while giving it to a pal who could turn a profit on it is technically icky, and should be prosecuted to the fullest available extent of our ridicule.

St. Louis legislator says MLS stadium includes hidden future costs, is told to shut up because she has a rental-car dispute with team owners

Several members of the St. Louis city board of aldermen are raising objections to board chair Lewis Reed’s proposal for the city to help build a soccer stadium for a potential new MLS franchise (viewable in its entirety here), specifically on the grounds that it would put the city on the hook for future upgrades. From Reed’s plan:

An exemption from fifty percent of the City amusement tax and the deposit of the proceeds of the remaining amusement tax revenue that is collected from the activities at the stadium into an escrow fund (the “Soccer Stadium Improvement / Demolition Fund”) annually by the City to support major future improvements to the stadium, and, if warranted, the demolition of the stadium.

So that “50% amusement tax break” is actually a 100% amusement tax break — or at least, half off the ticket tax and letting the team use the other half for its own future improvements, which is functionally the same thing. I previously guesstimated that eliminating the 5% ticket tax for a soccer team would cost the city about $450,000 a year, which would be worth maybe $7 million in present value; it’s not a huge amount, and could end up being worth less than the full exemption on property taxes that Reed wants to extend to the team, but it’s still not nothing. And the proposed solution by Alderman Christine Ingrassia — making the soccer team the owners of the stadium — would presumably eliminate the property-tax break, too.

According to Ingrassia, six to eight members of the 29-member board of aldermen have expressed concerns about the future upgrade slush fund, but she withdrew her resolution to put the stadium and its future costs in the team owners’ hands because (deep breath) she says Reed accused her of trying to sabotage the stadium plan, while Reed accused Ingrassia of being biased against one of the team’s prospective owners, the Taylor family of Enterprise Rent-a-Car fame, because she’s fighting with Enterprise over $3,000 in damages to a car she rented for a conference that she says she didn’t cause.

Anyway, the whole mess now goes to an aldermanic committee, where no doubt we will hear lots more about Ingrassia’s car rental bills. And maybe even something about exactly how much the ticket tax break and property tax break would be worth to the team owners — we can dream, can’t we?

Beckham’s Inter Miami could use Marlins Park as its temporary home

Now that David Beckham and Jorge Mas’s Inter Miami MLS expansion team has a stadium — well, a stadium plan — okay, the ability to take a stadium plan to the city commission, which may or may not vote for it — it’s time for the owners to figure out where the hell the team will play while waiting for its new home to be built (or not). According to Mas:

“From the beginning I’ve said that our options are Marlins Park, Hard Rock Stadium, [Florida International University]. We’ve looked at potentially playing some games up at FAU [Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton], more maybe geared towards a broader fanbase in terms of South Florida. This is a beautiful facility here [at Marlins Park]; we’re in conversations with all of the groups involved. Personally, I like this facility, I wouldn’t mind being here. The big advantage here is we’re a Miami team and this is in the city of Miami.”

If these are such great options, it’s tempting to suggest that maybe Inter Miami could just, you know, play at one of them for good and forget about the team’s long, circuitous path toward building a soccer-only stadium. Though if Beckham and Mas are going to pay for it, then it’s their business if they want to throw money at a new stadium when there are old ones that are “beautiful.” (Hey, he said it about Marlins Park, not me.)

One big plus for Marlins Park as a soccer venue: The way the Marlins draw fans, even MLS crowds might make the 36,000-seat stadium feel full by comparison!

Amazon subsidies and sports stadium subsidies are each terrible in their own special way

If you didn’t already get enough links to read from today’s weekly news roundup, and didn’t hear enough of my thoughts on Amazon’s $4 billion payday as it compares to sports subsidies, I’ve elaborated on my thoughts at length in an article that just went up this morning at Deadspin. Some sample takeaways:

  • Jeff Bezos will be getting more public cash than any single sports venue, but at least he’ll be employing actual full-time workers, so the cost-per-job ratio won’t be as dismal as in sports deals (though it’s still probably pretty bad).
  • Just like we’ve seen in sports deals, here are tons of hidden costs to the Amazon agreements, from infrastructure slush funds paid for with public tax dollars to federal tax shelters set up by Donald Trump that will cover Amazon’s New York headquarters, even though they were supposed to be for impoverished areas and Long Island City is decidedly not.
  • As in many sports deals, Amazon’s subsidies will evade most public oversight (in New York, anyway), and were arguably unnecessary at this level given that the company, like sports teams, undoubtedly ended up locating in the market that it wanted to anyway.

Or if you want to skip to the ending: “The Amazon deal is ultimately another step in the legitimization of government by extortion, where the nation’s richest men can withhold ‘job creation’ as a condition of not having to pay taxes, or commute without a helicopter.” But go read the whole thing, it’s way more entertaining than the bullet-point summary above, or at least way more packed with pop-culture references.

Friday roundup: Possible Suns arena renovation funding plan, A’s and Rays still promising stadium news by year’s end (but don’t hold your breath)

When it rains, it pours, and this week provided a deluge of stadium news:

St. Louis MLS owners to pay all $250m in stadium costs (except for tens of millions in tax breaks and free land, shh, don’t mention that)

If you want a strong candidate for the most misleading newspaper headline since, well, pretty much ever, I would nominate yesterday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch masterpiece “Downtown St. Louis soccer stadium would be paid for with cash by would-be team owners.” Here is how it begins:

The hopeful owners of a new Major League Soccer team in St. Louis are prepared to pay for a $250 million downtown stadium in cash, the leader of the ownership group said on Wednesday.

And here is its sixth paragraph:

The Kavanaugh-Taylor group is asking for tax-dollar help. The city of St. Louis has proposed giving the owners a 50 percent break on ticket taxes, a full tax exemption on stadium construction materials, a $30 million tax break from the state, a 3 percent sales tax on stadium goods, and the free use of land — just west of Union Station on Market Street — for the stadium.

That is not “paid for with cash by would-be team owners”! Unless all it means is they wouldn’t sell bonds or take out a bank loan, but would front the $250 million, getting repaid in part by all those tax breaks. Which would make the headline correct on a technicality, while still implying the exact opposite of the truth.

Anyway, the city-run Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority approved the $30 million state tax break and the sales tax break on construction materials yesterday, sending it to the Missouri Development Finance Board for final approval. (And yes, you are correct that neither of those bodies is made up of elected officials.) The city council could vote today on the ticket tax, the free land, and the stadium sales tax surcharge. Neither Post-Dispatch report attempted to determine a total value for all the tax breaks, because come on, man, journalism is hard enough in these troubled financial times without having to “provide numbers” and “write clear headlines” and all that.

Phoenix still talking to Suns about new arena, but not all that enthusiastically

The Phoenix city council is meeting today to discuss a possible new arena for the Suns, but as it’s a closed session we won’t know exactly what was discussed. What we do know is that the political landscape in Phoenix is crazily uncertain right now, thanks to last week’s election results:

  • Four candidates for mayor split the vote such that none got a majority, meaning the top two vote-getters, Kate Gallego (43.9%) and Daniel Valenzuela (26.1%), will head for a March runoff. Gallego has declared that “it is not in Phoenix’s best interest to invest in an arena”; Valenzuela has been more open to the idea, though even he said during the campaign, “For too long, taxpayers have been expected to foot the bill for sports venues. This practice must stop now.”
  • Since both Gallego and Valenzuela were formerly on the city council, both their old seats will be up for grabs in March as well, making for a significant swing on the nine-member city council (which includes the mayor).

The last time anyone in city government spoke out publicly about the Suns arena demands, it was to suspend negotiations after team owner Robert Sarver asked for $250 million in city money to fund renovations. Negotiations eventually resumed, but clearly nobody is super-eager to deliver bags of cash to Sarver’s door.

This stalemate can go on for a while yet: Sarver has until July 2022 to opt out of his lease in Phoenix, though obviously he’ll be working to heat up arena talks as that date approaches. What he would do if he did opt out is another story: While he’s previously said he’d “explore other options,” no other cities in the Phoenix area have been rushing to build him an arena either. I suppose Sarver could consider relocating to Seattle’s renovated KeyArena, which wouldn’t be much of a step down in terms of market size, but as an Arizona native he’d have to face being burned in effigy at all of his college reunions.

Really, the best bet for Sarver might be to come to an arena agreement fast, while interim mayor Thelda Williams, who is at least lukewarm to sports subsidies, is still in office. Though is past sports team owner behavior is any precedent, he’ll throw all his support behind Valenzuela, who will then lose, leaving team officials to tweet angrily about how life isn’t fair.

(Obligatory closing joke about how this mess is way more entertaining than watching the Suns play basketball.)

Calgary voters tell city to take its Olympic bid and stick it where the sun never rises

Well, well, well: Turns out after Calgary city officials rescued the city’s 2026 Olympics bid from the brink of death with a last-minute renegotiation with the Canadian federal government, city residents voted to send it right back to the grave yesterday, delivering a 56-44% verdict that the city should not offer to host the Games.

While technically the city council could still move ahead with the bid, since federal and provincial funding was contingent on a “yes” vote, that’s not going to happen:

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said “The people have spoken in big numbers, and have spoken clearly.”

When asked if the bid is dead, the Mayor said “Yeah, it’s very clear.”

With just seven months to go before the International Olympic Committee makes its decision on a 2026 host, this leaves only Stockholm and a joint bid by the Italian cities of Milan and Cortina in the running. And Stockholm’s new city government has declared itself opposed to using any public funding to build Olympic facilities or cover cost overruns, while the Italian national government has said it won’t contribute “one euro” to Milan-Cortina costs.

None of this is likely to turn out to be the long-awaited collective global middle finger to the IOC’s host city demands — either Stockholm or Milan-Cortina will likely figure out a way to host the 2026 Winter Games. But it is absolutely a sign that more and more cities are pushing back on the IOC’s insistence that host cities foot the bill for the Games — and cover any shortfall if they lose money, which they almost always do. It’s the reason why the IOC picked 2024 and 2028 Olympic hosts (Paris and Los Angeles) at the same time, and why the committee is constantly touting its promises to cut costs and reduce the number of white-elephant velodromes left scattered around the countryside in a Games’ wake. Push may not have come to shove just yet, but it seems to be heading there, and if it does it’ll make for some very interesting negotiations around the 2030 and 2032 Olympic bid races.

Amazon just walked away with maybe $4B in public cash for doing what it was going to anyway

In case you somehow missed it, Amazon made it official this morning that its new 50,000-person second headquarters was going to be split into two 25,000-person sites, one in the Long Island City section of New York City and one across the river from Washington, D.C., in Arlington, Virginia. (Nashville, Tennessee, will also get an “Operations Center of Excellence,” which is maybe not the name you want to give your corporate outpost if people are already worried your company is an Orwellian nightmare.)

Attached to its press release, Amazon included the full memoranda of understanding for the New York, Arlington, and Nashville deals — since my purpose in life somehow seems to have evolved into reading these damn things and figuring out what’s hidden in them, I sat down to write up an analysis of the New York deal for Gothamist. The upshot: Between the city and the state, Amazon will cash in at least $2.5 billion in checks from the public (and probably more like $3 billion — see update below) in the form of tax breaks and other goodies. With Jeff Bezos in line for about another $1 billion from Virginia and a pittance of $60 million from Nashville — hardly worth counting the bills, honestly — that’s about $4 billion that America’s richest man will be raking in for the trouble of holding a year-long bidding war before doing whatever he wanted anyway.

A few further notes on this, from our usual perspective of sports subsidies:

  • Damn, that is a chunk of change. Yes, an Amazon headquarters is arguably more valuable than a sports stadium — there’s no way even the busiest sports venue will employ 25,000 workers, and those it does employ only be there a few hours a day during the season of whatever sport it hosts — but even the Steinbrenners have never managed a $4 billion payday. Neither did Elon Musk. (Though Boeing did, and celebrated by laying off workers.)
  • Modern subsidies are really hard to keep count of. Amazon’s press release fessed up to $1.5 billion in subsidies from New York and $573 million from Virginia, but that didn’t count $200 million from each state for bonus jobs created over 25,000, nor a $300 million infrastructure fund in Arlington, nor about $1.3 billion in off-the-rack tax breaks from New York City (I included $900 million of those in my Gothamist article, the New York Post’s Nolan Hicks found another $386 million), nor an additional infrastructure slush fund that will be created in New York from payments in lieu of property taxes. I’ve been staring at this thing all day and I still don’t feel 100% confident there aren’t additional hidden costs lurking about — which is par for the course for both sports and non-sports subsidy deals.
  • Subsidies aren’t what determine location decisions. We’ve seen this before in sports, where team owners have used the threat of going elsewhere to shake down the cities they already want to be in for cash. But it’s especially bald-faced in this case, where other states offered as much as $8.5 billion for Amazon’s hand, only to have Bezos say, Sorry, our first love is big cities where techies want to live. At which point you have to wonder: If Amazon was going to go to NYC and D.C. anyway, why did those locales bother coughing up so much public money? As with sports venues, cities could be thinking, “These people on the other side of the table need us more than we need them” — but they’re largely not.

Anyway: New York just threw a giant wad of cash at Amazon, Arlington can comfort itself that its wad is at least a bit smaller, and all the cities that missed out don’t get the new jobs, but do get to keep their money. There’s probably a lesson in here somewhere, but given that everyone involved is steadfastly refusing to learn it, it’s hardly worth spelling it out.