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 Falcons‘ waterfall 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.”