Friday roundup: The Case of the Dead Beer-Tap Inventor, and Other Stories

This was the week that was:

  • The Denver Broncos are finding it slow going getting a new naming rights sponsor for their stadium because a used stadium name loses lots of its value, thanks to everyone still calling it by the old name. Yes, this is yet another reason why teams demand new stadiums when the old ones are barely out of the cellophane.
  • Here’s a Los Angeles Times article arguing that if rich sports team owners are granted permission to evade environmental review laws, small business owners should be too. I am not entirely sure this is the best lesson to take from this, guys.
  • Pennsylvania is preparing to legalize sports gambling, and the owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates think it would be great if the state imposed a gambling fee and gave some of the money to them, the only surprising part here being that they actually said this out loud.
  • F.C. Cincinnati‘s ownership group is preparing upgrades to Nippert Stadium as the team’s temporary home while a new stadium is built, and “isn’t concerned by the cost,” according to WCPO. Yes, these are the same owners who said they couldn’t possibly build a new stadium without $63.8 million in public money. Also who said Nippert Stadium couldn’t possibly be made acceptable as an MLS venue. I’m done now.
  • Fredericksburg, Virginia has scheduled a July 10 vote on whether to build a new $35 million stadium for the single-A Potomac Nationals, and paying off the city’s costs by siphoning off property, admissions, sales, meal, personal property, and business license taxes paid at the stadium and handing them over to the team. I guess that would make it a PASMPPBLTIF?
  • And finally, a man found dead in a walk-in beer cooler in the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium turns out to have been there to install a revolutionary new fast-pour beer tap he’d invented, and no one yet knows how he died. This is going to be the best season of True Detective yet! (No, seriously, this is a tragedy for the man and his family, and I hope that everyone involved soon finds closure, at least, by determining the true facts of what happened. But also, no, I’m not going to go back and delete the joke. If this makes me a monster, at least I’m an appropriately social-media-driven monster.)

Friday roundup: Grading Mariners subsidies on a curve, Cobb County could close parks to pay off Braves debt, Beckham punts on another stadium deadline

Congratulations to the team that had never won the hockey thing winning it over the other team that had never won the hockey thing because it was a new team! And meanwhile:

Friday roundup: Rangers to keep empty ballpark, football Hall of Fame seeks bailout, Goodell dreams of a new Bills stadium

Happy baseball season! Unless you’re a Miami Marlins fan, in which case it’s already ruined. But anyway:

Cobb County is closing libraries so it can keep paying its Braves stadium debt service

Cobb County, Georgia, is proposing to close or consolidate eight public libraries to save money in the midst of a budget crunch, and Deadspin has blamed this on the county spending $369 million on a new Atlanta Braves stadium. Is this a fair accusation? Let’s turn to our old friend math!

  • Property tax levies are up, but the county still faces a $30-55 million budget deficit.
  • Cobb County is spending at least $8.6 million a year out of its general fund on stadium construction and operations costs.
  • The county could try to raise more money by, say, increasing hotel and car rental taxes, except it already did that for the Braves stadium, and is likely approaching blood from a stone territory.

Verdict: The stadium isn’t the only reason Cobb County residents are going to have a harder time finding books to read — as Deadspin notes, former county commission chair Tim Lee also cut taxes (I think he cut millage rates, so while property tax valuations are up, actual revenues are down, but I have a cold and don’t have the patience for the googling it would take to piece this together from media reports, so feel free to correct me in the comments if I got this wrong) — but it sure ain’t helping.

I’ll sometimes get criticism for being skeptical of all plans that involve spending a whole lot of public money on stadiums and coming out ahead because “economic impact,” but there’s a reason for that: When you start in a several hundred million dollar hole, it’s damn near impossible to climb out of that thanks to whatever money trickles in from new spending. Sure, in a best-case scenario you steal some consumer spending from neighboring jurisdictions, and the “multiplier effect” of money recirculating in the local economy isn’t mythical, just overblown. (Especially when most of the money never enters the local economy because it goes to athletes and owners who live and spend out of town.) But you’re counting on pennies to pay off dollars, and that’s never a good business plan — whether it’s for stadiums or for movie shoots.

Anyway, Cobb County is hosed, but we knew that already. Just set this one aside for the next time anyone says, “It’s not like this stadium money would be going to fund schools or libraries otherwise!”, because sometimes — oftentimes — that’s exactly what it means.

The only time taxpayers get a return on their Braves stadium cash is on Opposite Day

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been doing generally excellent work covering the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium in Cobb County, and today reporter Meris Lutz does something that is rarely attempted in press coverage of stadium deals: Trying to add up the actual costs and benefits of a new building after the fact, and seeing how it all worked out compared to what was promised by proponents.

First, the promises:

“Thanks to serious, conservative leadership, Cobb County will realize a 60 percent annual return on investment from the SunTrust Park partnership,” [former Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee] wrote. “In fact, it will be the first private public partnership of its kind to result in a return on investment to taxpayers in the very first year.”

Those are some promises! Now, how has reality lived up to that?

The public debt obligation on the stadium amounts to $16.4 million a year. Of that, $6.4 million is paid by Cobb residents out of the county’s general fund, while the remaining $10 million is funded through taxes and fees, including a countywide hotel/motel tax, a countywide rental car tax, a localized Cumberland hotel/motel tax, and localized Cumberland commercial property taxes.

Cobb pays another $1.2 million for stadium operation and maintenance and about $1 million for police overtime and traffic management at games and events.

None of these costs take into account the tens of millions spent on transportation infrastructure that critics say would not have been built but for the Braves. Nor does it account for the cost of the new parks, which were funded with another bond issue after money was diverted to pay for the stadium.

In total, Cobb County is paying a minimum of $8.6 million out of its general fund just for debt service, stadium operations and public safety.

So that’s $27 million a year, plus “tens of millions” for transportation and parks, in costs. How do things look on the revenue side?T

The Battery commercial project around the stadium has generated about $460,000 in property taxes for the county’s general fund and $1.3 million for schools. Those numbers are expected to rise as the development fills up — it is already at more than 50 percent capacity.

The county declined to give an estimate of sales tax income from the stadium and Battery, but a previous study projected $1.7 million annually. That money goes toward special funds for education and transportation, not the general fund.

So if property tax receipts double, Cobb County is looking at $5.2 million in new revenue, for a return on investment of at least negative-80%. That is something less than a 60% annual profit.

Cobb County is currently in a fiscal crisis — as Lutz notes, “Since the first pitch in April, fees for everything from senior centers to business licenses have gone up. Libraries are in danger of closing, and there’s talk of a new penny sales tax to fund the police.” None of that is solely the fault of the stadium, as she notes, but starting each year with an extra $20 million-plus hole in your budget does not help at all. If only someone could have pointed out beforehand that paying for half the costs of construction and getting none of the stadium revenues wasn’t the best idea!

Friday roundup: Saskatoon soccer frenzy, Phoenix hotel sale to fund Suns, and more!

And more!

Cobb County’s special bus to Braves games is costing taxpayers $82 per fan

Hey, remember when Cobb County announced that it was going to be spending $1.2 million on a special bus to the new Braves stadium, but insisted that it would be a great transit option for lots of other people too? Turns out not so much, and now the county is considering eliminating the bus service:

Chairman Mike Boyce said this week that all money-saving options — including curtailing the bus service or cutting it altogether — are on the table after the Board of Commissioners rejected his proposed tax hike by a 3-2 vote last month

The circulator began operating with three routes on March 31 — the same day as the first exhibition game at SunTrust Park. Since then, more than 11,000 people have used it. A study conducted by an outside firm estimated the service would eventually draw between 80,000 and 133,000 passengers per year.

We’re only about three-quarters of the way through the baseball season right now, but even if you pro-rate those 11,000 people to a full season, that’s still going to be about $82 per person that the county is spending on busing Braves fans to the games. For that kind of money, they could just rent them all cars.

The county’s transportation director still swears that eventually more people will be riding the bus, though from the sound of it the only people who use it now are Braves fans and people who work for the team. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s article on this includes an interview with a temp-worker dishwasher at the stadium whose knee trouble makes it hard for her to walk two miles to the stadium on days the bus doesn’t run, along with an accompanying photo showing her on the bus, all alone.) And then there’s this detail from an email Cobb County got from the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority when it asked about how Cleveland’s bus circulator went:

“Unfortunately, although people ‘loved’ the circulators not many of them actually ‘rode’ the circulators,’” an authority representative wrote. “Needless to say, we are out of the circulator business.”

The obvious solution would seem to be: Tell the Braves if they want a bus system to get fans and workers to their privately run stadium that they chose to put in the middle of nowhere, they are welcome to pay for one. Hopefully that’s one of the options being placed on the table.

Stadium architects dream of holographic players, and other Friday news

Hey, know what we haven’t done in a while? A Friday news roundup. Let’s do one of those now!

Happy weekend, everybody!

Cobb County spending $14m on traffic cops because they forgot to ask Braves to pay for them

My sincere apologies for neglecting to inform you last week of this excellent article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which reporter Dan Klepal revealed that Cobb County is going to be on the hook for $900,000 a year for traffic police around the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium. And before you say, “But isn’t free policing one of the services that government typically provides to sports teams and others alike?”, nuh-uh:

The Braves paid for traffic control during the team’s last eight seasons at Turner Field. At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons will reimburse the Georgia World Congress Center an estimated $2.5 million a year for traffic management during football games, soccer matches and other events…

An AJC survey of 11 cities with professional sports stadiums found only two other instances where taxpayers funded all or a portion of traffic control…

“The Falcons outcome is the norm. The Braves outcome is a throwback to the 1990s” when those kinds of subsidies were more common, [Stanford economist Roger Noll] said.

This free-traffic-cops clause apparently wasn’t part of the original Braves deal with Cobb County — traffic control costs weren’t addressed at the time, along with a lot else having to do with transportation — which left the county stuck with the costs by default. (Though it would be kind of fun to think of what would happen if the county said to the Braves, “Go get your players to direct traffic, it’s clear they’re not occupied by actually playing baseball.”) If we figure that the free patrolling is worth around $14 million in present value, adding that to the $355 million in existing public costs gets us to $369 million in subsidies to move the Braves from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, totally not because any Braves fans think all urban black people are violent criminals. But hey, who can put a price on burgerizzas?

Braves fans over shiny new stadium after just 13 home games, would like good baseball now

If there’s one sure truism in the sports stadium world, it’s that the honeymoon effect drawing fans to a new building varies depending on the quality of the product on the field: Put together a winning team and you can get something like the Cleveland Indians‘ six-year sellout streak; a losing one, and you’re more likely to be the Miami Marlins.

The Atlanta Braves have a brand-new stadium, and are in last place with an 11-19 record. Fans aren’t exactly turning out in droves:

After a couple initial sellouts, the Braves have settled into 12th in major league attendance. They were averaging a bit more than 30,000 (tickets sold), a good number considering that the team hasn’t averaged that high for a season since 2013. But not exactly the eye-popping boost you’d expect from the lure of a new ballpark.

Okay, maybe it’s just that it’s early in the season, and more fans turn up once it’s summertime? We can check that by looking at Baseball Reference’s year-over-year attendance chart, which shows how teams are doing in attendance compared to the same number of games the previous year. The numbers show that Braves attendance is up an average of 4,980 a game from 2016 at Turner Field — the third-largest jump in baseball, but still nothing to write home about. It looks like any honeymoon effect from the Braves move from downtown to suburban Cobb County will be marginal at best, at least unless the team gets good in a hurry, in which case it’s less “build it and they will come” and more “build Dansby Swanson and they will come.”