Court to rule by end of month whether Braves stadium bonds are public use

A group of Cobb County residents challenged the county’s $397 million bond issuance for a new Atlanta Braves stadium yesterday. After six hours of testimony, Superior Court Judge Robert Leonard — who was appointed to the case after the first judge assigned recused himself for being a member of the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce — promised to make a ruling by the end of the month.

Even the group bringing the challenge admits that the case is a longshot: The charge is  that the bond sale is illegal because it provides public money for a stadium that will be used for private benefit (if technically owned by the county), but courts have been overwhelmingly lenient in interpretations of what “public benefit” means. If the stadium project clears this hurdle, the county can sell bonds and start construction on the project, even though I feel like there’s something else that hasn’t been resolved yet … oh, right, whether or not the county will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on highway improvements to actually get people to the games. But there’s always time to worry about that later, when the only options are to pay the cost or to leave folks stranded in their cars miles from the stadium. Because that’s what leadership is all about.

Braves stadium wins another approval, but fans may have to park in Tennessee

The Atlanta Braves got another approval of their new $672 million stadium in Cobb County yesterday, as the county planning commission okayed zoning changes for the project. And there’s another new rendering of the stadium and its planned surrounding development, though it doesn’t actually look much different than the previous rendering. And, oh yes, it looks like Braves fans will have nowhere to park:

The Cobb plan counts on renting a large number of spaces from neighboring commercial developments. But many of them are saying no due to impacts on their own tenants, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported last week. Connie Engel of Childress Klein Properties, which manages one coveted parking location, said they welcomed the team but didn’t want to concern tenants. The Braves are now looking at lots up to 3 miles away, the paper says.

That’s not so hot, and makes you wonder if this is one reason why the long-delayed transportation agreement is so long delayed: It’s tough to know what new highway ramps and overpasses will be needed to bring people to the games if you don’t know whether they’ll be arriving by car or long-distance shuttle bus. (But not express buses. Because That Would Be Wrong.)

The group Citizens for Governmental Transparency is also considering filing objections against next Monday’s planned approval of the stadium bonds, though they admit it’s a longshot.  CGT’s Rich Pellegrino, noting that the Braves deal included public money to fund defenses against legal challenges from the public, calls the whole thing a “‘Saturday Night Live’-type” situation — by which I hope he means that it’s something we’ve seen way too many times already, and it stopped being funny a long time ago.

Cue the renderings:

Cobb commissioners say no to funding buses to Braves stadium, still mum on funding highways

Cobb County officials still have no idea how much the highway upgrades needed for the new Atlanta Braves stadium will cost, but if there’s one thing they’re dead set on, it’s that they won’t spend a dime to extend an express bus service to the stadium:

Commissioners Bob Ott, Lisa Cupid and Helen Goreham say they do not support county Chairman Tim Lee’s proposal to use special purpose local option sales tax dollars to partially fund the transit system.

Lee has said $100 million of the $494 million cost of the bus-rapid transit system could be paid for out of a new special purpose local option sales tax, were voters to renew the tax in a November referendum.

The special purpose local option sales tax — which, yes, is known by the priceless acronym SPLOST — allows counties to raise local sales taxes by a percent or two and then use the proceeds for roads or other public projects. The current iteration expires in 2015, and Cobb County commissioners want it known that if it’s renewed, none of this cash should go toward those demon buses:

“What I’ve seen so far I can’t support, because I don’t think it solves the traffic problems, and I think it’s a huge sum of money,” Ott said. “I believe it’s more geared toward economic development than solving the traffic problems.”

Cupid also cited the large cost as the reason for her opposition.

“As of right now, I am not supportive of including BRT on the SPLOST project list due to its exorbitant cost and limited reach to persons who depend on transit,” Cupid said.

Bus rapid transit is a contentious idea in the transportation world, with some calling it a cheap way of providing mass transit, and others saying it’s just throwing a lot of money at fancy buses. In the case of a suburban area like Cobb County, it’s undeniably about economic development rather than easing traffic — the whole point is to let more people get in and out of your county — though half a billion dollars does seem pricey, depending on how many people it would actually serve. Maybe if it helped reduce the need to spend on more highway capacity to get fans to and from Braves games … but shh, we’re not allowed to talk about that.

Cobb County can’t start building Braves stadium just yet, starts chopping down trees while it waits

If you’ve been wondering whether Cobb County would wait on its yet-to-be-negotiated-possibly-$160-million transportation agreement with the Atlanta Braves before moving ahead with stadium construction, wonder no longer, because they’ve got out their Super-Axe-Hacker:

Reports WSB-TV, which shot the above photo:

“They’ve been going very quick and we’ve seen that beautiful forest disappear in just a few weeks,” said Renee Ray who works near the new stadium site. “It’s amazing how fast it’s gone.”

“You can’t see anything but them working when you look out the window,” said Sharnetta Williams who also works nearby. “The trees are gone; it’s kind of depressing to see all that come down so quickly.”

There still has to be a bond validation hearing (presumably a Georgia thing) before actual stadium bonds can be sold, so it could be a bit yet before actual construction begins. But nothing says “we want this to be a fait accompli” like chopping down every tree in sight. Unless it’s pulverizing a 450-million-year-old rock formation.

Cobb okays Braves stadium plan after barring opponents from speaking

The Cobb County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 last night to approve the development, construction, and operating agreements for a new $622 million Atlanta Braves stadium, after a meeting that was less a debate than a coronation. Not only was the vote unanimous (for most of the plan elements; commissioner Lisa Cupid cast a token vote against the stadium bonds themselves), but every speaker during the public comment period spoke in favor of the plan — not all that surprising when you consider that only 12 people were allowed to sign up to speak, and plan supporters showed up at 2 pm on a workday to fill the speakers’ list.

Meanwhile, four stadium opponents were removed by police before the meeting started for “disrupting” it, “when it became clear early on they would not be allowed to speak and they approached the front of the room to ask the commission to create more speaking slots.” (Here’s a lovely photo of Ben Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership conference being disruptive by standing around with his hands folded.)

What nobody seems to be reporting — and maybe the Cobb Commission isn’t revealing — is whether the county now plans to go ahead with selling stadium bonds before coming to agreement on the all-important transportation plan, which apparently doesn’t even exist yet in draft form, and which could end up putting the county on the hook for an additional $160 million in highway and transit improvements. Admittedly, with the commission already so gung-ho about sinking $276 million into a baseball stadium it will get no direct revenues from, it’s unlikely that having to build a bunch of roads too would stop them; still, it’d be nice to actually figure out the whole financing plan before starting construction, especially given how the alternative has worked out before.

Braves exec: Good thing this stadium deal was secret, or somebody might have objected

More tidbits about the Atlanta Braves stadium deal are floating to the surface today, what with Cobb County set to vote on it today and all, and they ain’t pretty:

  • Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz apparently told a TV news reporter last week that it’s a good thing the deal was negotiated in secret, because “if it had gotten out, more people would have started taking the position of, ‘We don’t want that to happen.’” It’s the kind of thing you expect team officials to think — yes, it’s hard for opposition to form when nobody knows about the deal until two weeks before it’s voted on, thanks to county commissioners standing in the hallway to avoid a quorum — but not to say out loud, leading Deadspin to describe it as “so painfully lacking in self-awareness that it’s hard to imagine him saying it without adjusting his monocle.”
  • I can’t read it because it’s behind a paywall, but the Atlanta Journal Constitution has a story up with the headline, “Braves documents reveal no guarantees on private development,” which is pretty self-explanatory: The Braves are making no promises that they’ll actually build the surrounding retail/housing/whatever complex that has been held out as one of the main benefits of the stadium deal. Which is no surprise, since promising to build ancillary development but not committing to actually do it in this century is par for the stadium course, but it’s still not a good sign.
  • If you were surprised that the vote is today, you’re not the only one: As Creative Loafing reports, “Details about the vote, which will be followed by the issuance of the bonds later this year, were released after 6 p.m. on Friday.”

The Cobb County Commission meeting starts tonight at 7 pm, and streaming video should be available here. Let’s all meet up in comments and make quips! I get to be Crow T. Robot!

 

Cobb County on Braves stadium: Vote first, ask questions later

So the Cobb County Commission is going to be voting on the Atlanta Braves stadium deal today, notwithstanding that the deal still hasn’t finished being written:

Cobb County Commissioners are expected to vote Tuesday on development, construction and operating agreements between the county, the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority and the Braves to build the planned $672 million, 41,676-seat stadium and adjacent $400 million mixed-use development near the intersection of interstates 75 and 285.

Development, construction, and operating agreements — that leaves out the transportation and infrastructure agreement, which just happens to be the one that could end up costing the county as much as an additional $160 million. So Cobb County will be voting on approving the bulk of the deal, including selling stadium bonds, before actually knowing how much it will cost taxpayers. I suppose it’s too much to hope that this will all turn out to be a curious dream?

Braves stadium will face south, the better to see their new artificial lake

New Atlanta Braves stadium rendering porn! Looks like the Cobb County facility will have, um, an artificial lake? And a, what’s that in left-center field, a restaurant? An aquarium? And four decks of seating, or maybe five?

The most interesting rendering is probably this one, since it finally gives a sense of perspective on which way the stadium will face:

Braves officials at first indicated that the stadium would face southwest, which would be kind of crazy, given that that’s where the sun is during the afternoon, which is when baseball games are played. (Batters face east in most baseball stadiums, which is why left-handed pitchers are called “southpaws.”) They later changed that to “south,” and it looks from this rendering like it’s slightly east of south — one reporter tells me that the stadium designers now say it’s 22º east of due south, which would still be the most southerly-facing stadium in MLB. (Comerica Park in Detroit, the current record holder, looks to be about 28.5º east of due south.)

Anyway, it’s all fun to speculate about, especially since there’s nothing else really to say about the Braves’ stadium plan … what’s that? The transportation improvements that could still cost the county an additional $160 million on top of its $276 million in stadium construction costs? Reply hazy, ask again later.

No opt-out clause in Braves lease; total cost to Cobb County still uncertain

The draft stadium agreements between the Atlanta Braves and Cobb County are now online, which means we can get down to the matter of answering those remaining sticky questions about the deal. One at a time:

Who will pay operating costs on the stadium, the Braves or the county? The Braves and Cobb County will go 50/50 on contributing to a “capital maintenance fund” to pay for any repairs and maintenance to the new stadium. The county’s payments will be limited to $1,590,000 per year, but there’s a big “but”: If the Braves tell the county that they need an upgrade that’s “reasonable and necessary for the Stadium to remain a Competitive MLB Facility,” then the county can decide to kick in more. (It doesn’t look like they’re obligated to kick in more, at least.) The Braves promise to fund any upgrades that “exceed industry standards,” a clause that it likely to come into play exactly never, given sports teams’ attitudes toward what “industry standards” mean.

Are the Braves going to be locked in to playing in Cobb for the entire length of the lease, or will there be opt-out clauses? There’s no opt-out per se, though the Braves could break the lease by paying off a pro-rated share of the public’s construction costs — so to get out of the lease in the year 2037, for example, the team would have to pay about $123 million. Cobb County could seek a court injunction first, though, so all things considered, this looks like a fairly tight lease compared to some.

Is there any sign of that transportation document, and how much the county could be on the hook for new roads? Nope — the Transportation Agreement doesn’t even exist in draft form. (The Operating Agreement includes a heading in its table of contents for “3.2. Public Infrastructure,” but that actual section isn’t included in the document that follows.) Which is a pretty big omission, given that estimates of the cost of possible road improvements run as high as $160 million.

So the main takeaway remains that the Braves would get almost half the cost of a $622-672 million stadium paid for by the county, plus an unknown amount in highway improvements, plus at least $47 million in county maintenance and repair funds, and would get 100% of revenues from any and all events held in the new building, plus naming rights and anything else that generates any money. But at least they wouldn’t get to walk out on the deal halfway through without paying off the county’s remaining expenses. It’s better than the poke in the eye with a sharp stick that is some other cities’ stadium leases, but that’s a pretty low bar for comparison.

Georgia State floats turning Turner Field into football stadium, has no idea how to pay for it

When the Atlanta Braves announced plans to move out of Turner Field for a new stadium in Cobb County last fall, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed immediately said he’d seek bids to redevelop the old (if you can call a 17-year-old stadium “old”) stadium site. And now he has at least four in hand, including one from Georgia State University to redo the Olympics-turned-baseball stadium into a college football stadium:

Georgia State is proposing repurposing Turner Field into a 30,000-seat football stadium and building another baseball stadium that will include Hank Aaron’s wall as part of the structure.

University President Dr. Mark Becker and Atlanta real estate development firm Carter provided the Atlanta Journal-Constitution an exclusive look at the proposal on Wednesday. The idea is more than just stadiums. They want to be partners in building an estimated $300 million development that will include retail, residential and student housing and will be paid for through a mix of public and private funds.

On the bright side, a retail and housing complex with two college stadiums is arguably a better use of the land than a Braves stadium and a bunch of parking lots. On the less bright side, nobody knows how much all this would cost or how it would be paid for, though given that Georgia State is a public university, ultimately the state seems likely to be on the hook for the bulk of it. So, good money after bad, or making lemons into lemonade? Too soon to tell.