Braves stadium mysteries: Who would pay for it, and is the site workable?

As Day Two dawns on the Atlanta Braves‘ planned move to a new stadium in suburban Cobb County, let’s start with a recap of yesterday’s whirlwind of events:

  • Braves execs John Schuerholz, Mike Plant, and Derek Schiller huddled with reporters in the morning to announce that after the expiration of its lease at Turner Field in 2016, the team would be moving to a new 41,000-seat stadium in the northwest suburbs of Cobb County. (They also announced a new website, homeofthebraves.com, for the new stadium.) This despite the fact that Turner only opened for baseball 16 years ago, after its conversion from being the main stadium of the 1996 Olympics.
  • Atlanta Journal Constitution reporters Greg Bluestein and Jim Galloway reported that they “were told” (by whom, they did not say) that the stadium would involve $450 million in “financing” from the county and $200 million “up front” from the Braves. So far as I can tell, this remains the only source so far for any cost breakdown on the stadium, though Braves/ESPN broadcaster Tom Hart tweeted that the total cost of the stadium would be $672 million.
  • Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed forswore any talk of a bidding war, saying, “there was simply no way the team was going to stay in downtown Atlanta without city taxpayers spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make that happen,” and “I wish them well.”
  • Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee wouldn’t provide many details of the stadium plan, but did indicate that the deal has been in the works since this summer, really picked up in the last four to six weeks, and is scheduled for a county commission vote on a memorandum of understanding — which isn’t even written yet, because the financial details aren’t worked out — on November 26, two weeks from today.

So that’s what we know. What we don’t know, meanwhile, is possibly even more interesting:

Where will the money come from? Finding $450 million under the sofa cushions isn’t easy, and it’s going to be especially tough for Cobb County, which has already reduced its school staffing and furloughed teachers for a week this year to close one budget gap, and is facing a $60 million education budget deficit for next year as well. (The total county budget is about $320 million, meaning the annual stadium debt costs would represent a full 10% of the county’s budget.) If they want to avoid a countywide vote, they’ll need to find a plan that involves using (or raising) existing taxes, not instituting a new tax. And with Cobb a Tea Party stronghold — Lee’s campaign website lists cutting property taxes as his #1 priority, though he says he’d hike sales taxes to compensate — any tax hikes are likely to meet political resistance, though given that Lee says he expects a unanimous 5-0 votein favor of the plan on November 26, it sounds like he’s worked out something that will fly with his colleagues, if not necessarily his constituents.

What could that be? Bluestein and Galloway speculate that Cobb County could raise its hotel-motel tax, though given that that tax brings in only about $10 million a year in total and more like $30 million a year would be needed to pay off the county’s $450 million stadium tab, that’s not going to come close to cutting it. A tax increment financing district, in which taxes on new development are kicked back to pay for construction costs, is another possibility, especially given that the Braves are talking about a mixed-use development around the stadium (but see below on that) — though that would both leave the county stuck with the bill for all those services that the new development would need (schools, roads — again see below) and also probably still not fill the entire $450 million gap.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the wording of that AJC report is ambiguous in the extreme: $450 million in public “financing” could mean that the county would borrow the money and the team would pay it off, or that the county would borrow money and pay it off itself with tax revenue; even that $200 million “up front” from the Braves doesn’t necessarily mean they’d pay that whole portion, if we see the return of the Falconswaterfall fund or something similar. Schiller told Forbes’ Maury Brown that “Cobb County will be responsible for delineating the various buckets of dollars,” which would seem to indicate that finding the $450 million is the county’s problem to solve, but really, we’re reading tea leaves here. Until Lee actually announces how he plans to pay for this, all we really have is a dream, not an executable plan.

Can the Cobb County site really work? The Braves owners have been touting this map as an indication that the new site is closer to most of their ticket buyers, which it undoubtedly is, though you have to wonder if a ten-minute shorter drive to games is really going to be a huge incentive for people to see baseball. (Especially when, as SB Nation’s Braves blog Talking Chop notes, for those working in Atlanta this will mean driving in rush-hour traffic instead of against traffic to get to weeknight games.) The more relevant map, though, is this one, of the proposed stadium site:

The red area is 60 acres, and the stadium itself will take up 15 of them. (The little blue stadium icon, needless to say, isn’t to scale.) That sounds like it would leave a lot left over for the retail space, hotels, housing, and so on that the Braves want to build, but remember that one of the team’s main excuses for wanting to move is that their current site doesn’t feature enough parking. Then look at the ratio of stadium footprint to parking lots at Turner Field:There might be room for some development, but not a ton, barring expensive multi-level parking garages.

Meanwhile, those highways at right and center are I-75 and I-285, and as Talking Chop points out, it’s not going to be able to handle 41,000 Braves fans without major upgrades. And forget about taking public transit to the site, as Lee singlehandedly blocked the expansion of the MARTA rail system to Cobb County when it was proposed a couple of years ago. So somebody is going to need to pay for highway improvements — and while part of it could possibly be paid for by the Cumberland Community Improvement District, an existing district around the stadium site that levies a property-tax surcharge on commercial buildings to pay for infrastructure improvements, a trip to either the state legislature or Washington, D.C. would likely be needed as well.

In other words, there’s a lot that still doesn’t add up here, and until Lee comes clean with the actual financial plan, it’s hard to tell exactly who’s going to be paying for what — or even whether enough money has actually been found yet to pay for this thing, or if we’re heading for a Minnesota Vikings scenario (or, if you prefer, a Sacramento Kings one). More news when there’s news, I guess, but don’t be surprised if this deal ends up far more complicated, and time-consuming, than a simple two-week jaunt through the county commission.

In the meantime, it’s mildly entertaining to see that Cobb officials are hyping the economic benefits of bringing a baseball stadium to town, while Atlanta officials are talking up how great it’ll be when the Braves vacate Turner Field and they can develop it for other uses. Baseball truly is a magical sport — it can boost the economy both by coming and going!

ADDENDUM: I’m going to be on The Beat of Sports on Orlando’s 740 the Game at 10 am ET this morning to discuss the Braves situation (head to 740thegame.com to listen in), and will undoubtedly be discussing it with Heather McCoy on my weekly KUCI spot as well (11 am ET, 8 am local time, go to kuci.org). I’ll also be on Brian Kenny’s NBC Sports Radio show tomorrow at 9:30 am. Finally, you can check out my print interviews yesterday with SBNation’s Marc Normandin and The Atlantic Wire’s Eric Levenson, if you really want to see how many different occasions I can find for use of the word “crappy.”


24 comments on “Braves stadium mysteries: Who would pay for it, and is the site workable?

  1. If we keep going hard, we’re gonna take this money
    Take money money take take money money
    Take money take take money money
    If we just play our part, we’re gonna make this money
    Make money money make make money money
    Make money money make make money

  2. I used to live in Atlanta, and that 75-285 junction (as well as the surround boulevards) is an absolute nightmare on the best of occasions. I second Talking Chop on this one. How the heck will the area handle another 20,000 or so vehicles.

  3. “obb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee wouldn’t provide many details of the stadium plan, but did indicate that the deal has been in the works since this summer, really picked up in the last four to six weeks, and is scheduled for a county commission vote on a memorandum of understanding — which isn’t even written yet, because the financial details aren’t worked out — on November 26, two weeks from today.”

    As someone who works on large scale development projects these types of timelines are hilarious to me. I am sure the Commissioners will do a lot of due diligence on that MoU they get 5 hours before the meeting. But hey what is $450 million in other peoples’ money when you are busy lining up your future employment!

  4. If the city of Atlanta was smart they’d just maintain Turner Field till the Braves return if they ever leave.

    Gas ain’t staying cheap forever to get people to and from a suburban stadium……

  5. If the braves leave then they can finally put that brick/asphalt baseball diamond in the green lot to good use for the new sport of “extreme baseball”. You thought sliding into home was dangerous to players before… who will dare to one up Atlanta and create the playing surface of glass shards?

  6. “That sounds like it would leave a lot left over for the retail space, hotels, housing, and so on that the Braves want to build, but remember that one of the team’s main excuses for wanting to move is that their current site doesn’t feature enough parking.”

    I’m guessing that they plan on putting the extra stuff in the satellite red pieces at the top and bottom of the image. But I think you’re right about the amount of space in the primary red segment – it ain’t gonna give them any more parking than they’ve got now. Unless they do a lot of multi-layering (parking garages).

  7. Before anyone thinks “good for the mayor” for not giving in to the Braves, remember he just gave the Atlanta Falcons ~$550,000,000. There’s much talk in Atlanta as to why he gave Arthur Blank so much money and used so much political capital to get that funding done while he treated the Braves the same way he treated the Thrashers (who are now in Winnipeg). None of them should get any public money but it’s interesting to ask why the Falcons are deserving of so much and other sports get the cold shoulder. This is especially true for the Braves, who are much more beloved than the Falcons.

  8. QCIC: Absolutely true. It’s early days, but thus far the folks at Cobb look like they are completely out of their depth here. It’s so obvious that they don’t know what they don’t know… yet they can’t see it….

  9. Jason: There has been a common misunderstanding about the public funds in the Falcons deal and the size of the contribution from the city, directly. The city are “only” issuing about $200M in bonds to contribute. The other public portion comes from the existing hotel-motel tax for the GWCC/downtown district and has always been earmarked for these sorts of projects only. Unless that law was re-written, that ~$350M was already spoken for. The new Falcons stadium also, ostensibly, will have multiple uses, where as Turner Field serves one tenant. Also, what the Braves were actually asking for to stay was a bit absurd and wasn’t just the refurb cost they are kicking around; they wanted a ton of free work to build a light rail spur from the nearest MARTA station to their front door (NOTE: NO TRANSIT IN NEW STADIUM). They wanted major land acquisitions and renovations to neighboring privately held lots to allow for more parking but also, somehow, more night life (NOTE: NO NIGHTLIFE AT ALL IN THE CURRENT STADIUM). As to the Thrashers situation, hey, that was a situation Kasim inherited as it was basically already done and the city had no intention of becoming Phoenix and covering the losses since, sadly, no meaningful location ownership team was stepping forward that didn’t also want to purchase Philips from Spirit Group (the crown in their empire).

  10. Ben, you’re very poorly informed (perhaps intentionally) with it comes to it being inevitable that the Falcons would get all of the tax money they’re getting. It’s a convenient situation designed by those benefiting from it but absolutely in no way was it the only choice. It’s astonishing that anyone would think that the argument that the Falcons had no choice but to accept money that the city had no choice to give them would fly with anyone giving the situation an objective review. When you make such absurd claims, you’re basically sticking your middle finger in the face of the person you’re talking to and screaming that you think they’re too stupid to understand the facts. While that will fly with fans of teams who are happy to have their pastime propped up with public money, for everyone else, it’s an insult to not only use the public money to enrich the ownership of these teams but also to insist that anyone who isn’t happy about it simply doesn’t understand the situation. We understand the situation very well and even if we can’t stop it, we’re not going to blindly agree with the talking point that these terrible deals are the one and only choice. People who make inaccurate claims should be called out and not be able to hide their greed behind “we have no choice”.

  11. Jason, I don’t think anyone is screaming with a middle finger raised. There are clearly reasons why Reed okayed paying the Falcons and not the Braves, though neither deal seems much better or worse to me.

    Speaking of which, Ben, it’s not really accurate to say that “that ~$350M was already spoken for.” It had to be used for projects related to tourism, yes, but that isn’t the same as saying it had to be used for the Falcons. Plus, the state legislature could have just as easily voted to redirect the money to something else — schools, roads, a giant statue of Francisco Cabrera — as to vote to give to the Falcons.

  12. Jason: are you implying race has something to do with it? Or am I just inferring that? I don’t mean that as an attack. It’s a legitimate question to ask what the racial makeup of the fan-bases of the Braves, Thrashers and Falcons is and if that has anything to do with how a mayor thought to use public funds. Now I have no data the racial make up of those fan bases but I totally think that would be worth exploring and depending on the results, a conversation worth having.

  13. Reading some of these comments is unbelievable.

    1) The Braves have a great fanbase and most of it hates the location of Turner Field.

    2) The new stadium is in an area with a bunch of office buildings, hotels and restaurant chains. A new ballpark will fit right in.

    3) The new Falcons stadium will get used 15 dates per year or fewer. The Braves stadium will get 80+ dates. That’s more of a economic positive to the area around the new building and the region in general.

    4) Gas prices are going down (now $3.42/gallon nationally), not up. And they will continue to.

    5) We don’t know how the debt that Cobb County will be incurring will be paid off. If it’s a TIF, then that would make sense since the stadium & surrounding development likely would be responsible for spiking property tax revenues. If it’s an Arlington-style sales/rental/hotel tax, then people who work and live in Cobb County will be paying for Braves players’ salaries.

  14. I think this was one of those deals where the Atlanta mayor figured he could keep 1 team, and lose the other, and in the end he picked the Falcons. Why? Maybe they gave him a ton of money, maybe he’s a Falcons fan, and maybe he randomly hates that the Braves named the stadium Turner Field and not Aaron Field. Either way, as bad as the Falcons new stadium would be for the city, at least he didn’t overpay for both.

  15. If a new baseball stadium at the Cobb county site will be a catalyst for new development and lead to a “spike” in property tax revenues (which are NOT profit for cities, don’t forget.), can someone please explain why there has been no such development around Turner field?

    If downtown stadia are the lifeblood of communities (as we keep hearing so often from those with lots of rhetoric and little factual information to back it up), why is the new, new Braves stadium going to be in the burbs?

    Because fans will drive 15 minutes to get to games but not 19? As garbage arguments go, that one is right down near the bottom of the festering stinking pile.

  16. “4) Gas prices are going down (now $3.42/gallon nationally), not up. And they will continue to.”

    Only if we go into a prolonged recession/depression. And then we will have more important things to spend money on than stadiums for billionaires and millionaires.

  17. What this situation shows us again is that the cost-benefit calculations of stadium construction are totally skewed. Mr. Bladen is slightly wrong–the team actually has played more than 80 games quite a few times (with some “high visibility” playoff and World Series appearances) since moving from Fulton County stadium. That doesn’t seem to have helped economic development much.

    It would be hard for me to believe that a TIF would help Cobb County much, if at all, if there’s so little demand for vacant land in the center of town that a baseball stadium used 25 percent of the year would “help.”

    In the end, it is just crazy to center price conversations on a “downtown” stadium, where the land is most valuable (to include Cobb County). In the old days, teams usually built their own parks far outside city centers, where land was cheaper. The fact that these promised benefits never materialize should bring down public contributions substantially and allow for a more sensible use of land, though that is asking a lot.

  18. Amazing how much press this story is getting: HuffPo front page, Dkos, MSNBC…

    Why is THIS one the story that press is picking up on???

  19. I disagree with the statement that a new stadium will “fit right in” the proposed site. I have lived in the area (within 10 miles) for the past 20 years. Yes, there are office parks, restaurant chains and hotels. But the restaurants (many are fast food chains) are not an easy walk from the proposed stadium. Hwy 41 and I-285 stand between many of the hotels/restaurants and where the stadium would be located. Except for a couple of seedy extended-stay motels and maybe one or two small hotels… I’m not convinced many of these businesses will be convenient or appealing enough to cause fans to stick around and spend money. The area would need millions of additional dollars in pedestrian-friendly, surface-street transportation improvements (for which we are constantly being told there is no money) beyond the “diverging diamond” interstate improvements already planned that Commissioner Ott seems to think will solve everything.. Given the fact that much of the stadium site would be devoted to the stadium itself and to parking, I’m not sure what they can add to insure enough additional revenue to the area to make this a success. Too many unanswered questions to ethically push through a vote on this deal in less than two weeks. It’s just plain arrogant IMO.

  20. “I disagree with the statement that a new stadium will “fit right in” the proposed site.”

    I may be wrong, but I assumed that Ben’s “fit right in” and “gas prices are going down” comments were made in jest.

    I did a bit of cut-and-paste with Google map images and found that the primary piece of the new site is actually slightly smaller than the current Turner Field + parking.

  21. Funny, I assumed Ben was serious. Sounds like he believes this will work out economically for Cobb taxpayers so long as the stadium debt is structured correctly. Perhaps I am wrong about his comment. All I can say is that we live within jogging distance of the proposed stadium site. It’s not an altogether great area, and the Windy Hill Rd. and Cobb Parkway corridors are notoriously unfriendly to pedestrians. There aren’t many large hotels, with a couple of exceptions on the other side of I-285. Without significant improvements to that situation, I don’t see how this will benefit existing nearby businesses much. It will likely be cars in before the game and cars out after, just like at the Ted. Just my opinion, from having lived within 5-10 miles of this site for the past 20 years.

  22. Gee, I look forward to being able to eat in a decent restaurant at Cumberland or Galleria, take the proposed tram/skyway pedestrian bridge over 285 to the game, and after the game walk back over, have dessert or a beer, hop back into my car which has not moved in the last five hours and there was no parking fee at the mall, and drive home happy. None of that is possible at the TED.
    In fact, the scenario of possibilities there is far worse as it now stands. Foolish to think that, given the nice area (almost luxurious compared to Reynoldstown etc around the TED), more hotels and restaurants won’t grow up around this action. And remember, already in place in this area is the Cobb Energy Centre and the Galleria Convention Center. Complaints about traffic are a wash at best. No one can say that entering or leaving downtown during a BRAVES game is easy. How quickly we forget the mess when convention/Braves/Falcons/TECH, etc. occur simultaneously.

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