New radio series explores WTF is up with all those new Atlanta stadiums

WABE radio in Atlanta kicked off a week-long series yesterday on the metro area’s multiple new stadium and arena deals for the Falcons, Braves, and possibly Hawks, and I had the honor of being one of the first guests, pointing out that while there are certainly cities that got worse deals (hello, Indianapolis!), that’s not really something to brag about. You can listen to the whole interview here.

More interesting to me (since I know what I was going to say already) is Thursday’s upcoming appearance by Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee, who will try to explain why it made sense to throw $300 million at the Braves to get them to move to a new stadium in the suburbs, plus maybe what’s up with that pedestrian bridge that won’t be ready in time to get fans from their cars to games, plus maybe the soaring ticket prices planned for the new place, plus even maybe why he secretly hired a lawyer with county funds to negotiate the Braves deal without even telling his fellow commission members, then lied about having done so. Come to think of it, I would have rather skipped my appearance yesterday and instead gotten to interview Lee. Now that would be some must-see radio.

Braves bridge may go way over budget, leave fans stranded on wrong side of highway for five months

Hey, how’s everybody’s favorite pedestrian-and-bus bridge that no one knows how much it will cost but that without which Atlanta Braves fans won’t be able to get to games? The good news is that the Cobb County Commission approved a preliminary design last night, one that involves side-by-side lanes for pedestrians and shuttle buses. The bad news is, as Dan Klepal of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, everything else:

The 1,100-foot bridge, which is meant to help fans walking or riding a circulator bus to the games from remote parking areas, likely won’t be completed until September 2017 — five months later than county officials originally planned, according to a document obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through Georgia’s Open Records Act.

Okay, that’s not good, considering that the stadium is supposed to open in April 2017 — five months is a long time to be late for the game.

And any news on how much this bridge is going to cost, and who’ll pay for it and how?

The county has not updated its $9 million cost estimate, despite its contractor working on the project since April. The AJC has previously reported that the county’s estimate is for construction costs only and does not include things such as moving utilities, buying land for right-of-way, or the $804,000 being paid to the contractor.

So that would be a lot more than $9 million, in all likelihood—

Outside bridge experts have previously expressed skepticism to the newspaper that the county can even construct the bridge for $9 million.

Okay, a whole lot more than $9 mil—

And now there’s a new expense: the top level of the parking garage, to which the bridge will connect, will have to be reinforced to support the circulator bus, according to documents reviewed by the newspaper.

The deck needs to be strengthened to support the buses that will drive across it to access the bridge, the document says. It does not specify what materials will be used or how much it will cost, but it is clearly an unexpected development.

Okay, clearly nobody has any idea how much this bridge will cost, or when it will be open, but they’ve gotta build it or half the fans attending every game will end up standing on the wrong side of a highway, because they went ahead and approved the stadium before finalizing the transportation plan. I’m going out on a limb here and saying maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea, guys?

Stadiums can be anchors for related development, say newspapers in search of cheap headlines

You know what I missed while I was away? Having the time to read long, misinformed articles about new stadium projects and how they’re just totally different from those old bad stadium projects of a couple of decades ago. Got anything like that for me, Google News?

With the era of standalone, isolated stadiums largely over, sports team owners increasingly are taking on the role of developer and using their stadiums as anchors for entertainment districts or retail and residential developments.

Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff.

The article in question is from the Tampa Tribune’s Christopher O’Donnell, and argues that this newfangled stadium-plus-other-development model being used by teams like the Atlanta Braves and Detroit Red Wings (or “Redwings,” as he calls them) could be used by the Tampa Bay Rays for a new stadium as well. It ignores the fact that these stadium-plus projects aren’t especially new, going back well over a decade (the St. Louis Cardinals‘ “ballpark village” was one of the earlier ones, but I’m sure I’m forgetting others), and mostly ignores, aside from a comment by stadium architecture consultant Philip Bess (who O’Donnell calls “Phillip” — fired all the copy editors, did you, Tampa Tribune?), the problem that if development around a stadium were profitable enough to pay off a stadium, teams would be able to pursue this strategy without public subsidies. Not to mention that if stadium-related development is profitable it could be pursued without the money suck of a new stadium attached, that it could just end up displacing development that otherwise would have taken place somewhere else in town, that development around stadiums has typically appeared years late when it shows up at all, etc., etc.

Anyway, good to see that these articles still pop up every once in a while for me to throw rocks at, and — whoa there!

The new Minnesota Vikings football stadium, to be completed a year from now, is helping draw nearby office towers, upscale housing and other developments, according to its supporters.

Guys! One article at a time, please! I’m still getting back up to speed here.

Georgia court rules that baseball stadiums are a public purpose because they just are, duh

The court ruling is in for Cobb County’s use of public bonds for the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium, and did the judge buy the team’s argument that stadiums are a public purpose because they just are? Did he ever!

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 9.15.03 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-30 at 9.15.31 AMIn other words, sports are a public good, and anything that says it will create economic benefits is a public good, so the government has every right to fund it, so there. That’s pretty sweeping, albeit not unexpected. Anyway, if you were hoping that the Braves funding plan would somehow get tossed out by a court, throwing all of sports finance into disarray, the Georgia supreme court isn’t going to give that to you.

New Braves stadium to hike ticket prices 45%, Braves say this is because seats will be 45% better

The Atlanta Braves have released ticket prices for their new stadium in Cobb County, and fans can expect to absorb a whopping 45% price increase over Turner Field. Also, only a 4.7% price increase over Turner Field. Whaaa?

Turner Field features the third-cheapest price among Major League Baseball teams for non-premium season tickets at $19.14 per game, according to Team Marketing Report of Chicago, which uses data from all 30 MLB teams. The league average is about $29.

The Braves, however, say their average non-premium price is actually higher — $26.48. The Team Marketing Report survey excludes seats near the field and in other prime areas that wouldn’t be considered premium in a modern stadium. That effectively depresses Turner Field’s average.

The average non-premium seat cost at the new Cobb County ballpark is expected to be $27.73, according to a Braves spokeswoman. That would be a 45 percent increase over the Team Marketing Report average for Turner Field, but only a 4.7 percent increase over what the Braves consider their average price.

All of this mostly goes to show how hard it is to define “ticket price” in a 21st-century landscape of amenity-filled club seats and dynamic pricing. (The prices released by the Braves yesterday are just for season tickets; no one knows how individual games will be priced.) TMR divides up its pricing data into “general” and “premium” seating — the latter for “club seats or any section that has special features,” which is clear as mud — which allows teams to claim that a share of a price increase is due to added amenities, kind of the way that poverty isn’t a problem because poor people now have refrigerators.

The Braves, meanwhile, claim that you can’t compare seats at the old and new stadiums at all, because the new one will offer (in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s paraphrase) “

 

Braves VP on parking at new stadium: I hear bicycles are all the rage

Hey, Atlanta Braves and Cobb County, how’s that transportation plan that you’ve been punting on for a year and a half coming along?

The plan for where people can park near the stadium, spread out over 40 acres of property the Braves have purchased around the stadium, will be revealed in the last quarter of 2015 or the first quarter of 2016, he said.

Alrighty then. Do you have any ideas at all for how to get people to games in a spot next to a highway intersection without enough off-ramps in the middle of a not-all-that-developed suburb?

Mike Plant, Braves executive vice president of operations, said he encourages business owners and residents to “think outside of the box” and look into new transportation methods to the stadium. For instance, he said, he hopes local community improvement districts will consider extending their biking trails toward the stadium.

Anyone else have any other ideas?

Kim Perez, president of the Kennesaw Business Association, said at a meeting of the organization Tuesday she knows of many business owners in Cobb who are working on a smaller scale to transport employees or customers to the 81 games each year.

“Restaurants and other businesses are thinking about how they can get people to the stadium, and that’s a really neat thing,” Perez said.

Bicycles and crowdsourcing. This really is going to be a 21st-century stadium!

Cobb County is taking money allocated for parkland and spending it on Braves stadium

One of the trickiest parts of understanding the stadium game is figuring out the tricky finances used by team owners (and local elected officials on their behalf) to fund new buildings. This is intentional: In a world where handing over a $300 million check from the public treasury to a private sports team is considered gauche (or at least likely to get you tarred and feathered by constituents), it’s important to have a convincing cover story claiming that, no, it’s not really a public subsidy.

For Cobb County, part of that cover story has been that taking $8.6 million a year in existing sales-tax surcharges and devoting it to a new Atlanta Braves stadium doesn’t really cost taxpayers anything, because they were going to be paying the tax anyway. Except that some people, including reporters at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, have noticed that the tax was originally approved in 2006 so that Cobb County could buy parkland, and voters there specifically authorized bonds to buy parkland in a 2008 vote, but instead Cobb County sat on the money and is now using it for a stadium:

After the successful 2006 referendum, which resulted in the purchase of 387 acres, voters went back to the polls and approved a second parks bond referendum in 2008. Although the measure passed with 67 percent of voters’ approval, the county commission never issued those bonds and no additional green space was ever purchased.

Jim Dugan served on the Cobb Parks Coalition, which worked to get parks referendum on ballots, and then served on the committee that evaluated undeveloped land for possible purchase. Dugan said the county has a moral obligation to either take the tax rate off the books or dedicate the revenue for more parks, in fulfillment of the 2008 vote.

Bah, “moral obligations.” How many divisions have they got?

Roger Buerki, who served on the committee that identified parks purchases in 2006, likewise called the sales-tax redirection a “sleight of hand” and “unseemly,” adding: “The commissioners might want to see an audiologist. They hear the Braves just fine, but they don’t hear the voters.” You say that like it’s a bug, Roger, but it’s really a feature.

Braves exec: If you won’t give us sales tax break, maybe we should just stop paying property taxes! Yeah!

In addition to all the other goodies that the Atlanta Braves are getting from Cobb County and the state of Georgia as part of their stadium deal, they’re also looking to get an exemption from state sales tax on construction materials for the project. That’s not that unusual — it’s one of the more typical subsidies that local governments like to throw at development projects as a sweetener, but instead of going with the “everybody does it” line, Braves VP Mike Plant decided yesterday to take a somewhat different tack:

“I think it’s just very narrow minded to say, ‘Oh, why should they be able to take that money out of the public?’” Plant said. “We’re putting a lot more into the public, and that’s I think the flaw in some of the rhetoric is that there’s no recognition for that.”

Plant said the state needs to have skin in the game if it wants to reap the rewards of the project, such as Tuesday’s announcement that Comcast would be the sole tenant of the nine-story office building the Braves are building adjacent to the stadium and bringing 1,000 jobs with them, the majority of which are expected to be new, high-paying jobs.

“Why shouldn’t we just keep all that then?” Plant said. “Why should we have to share the revenue upside that we’re creating if there’s no participation? We have close to a $1 billion investment in that ballpark and mixed-use (development). You’ve known from day one 100 percent of that mixed-use (development) is our responsibility. Creating a Comcast situation that brings 1,000 jobs, many of them new jobs, well, then we’re the only ones that took the risk to do that. Maybe we should have a discussion that we should get all the proceeds from that. That’s not the way the system works, and we’re OK with that.”

To anyone now wondering what on earth Plant is going on about, the “Comcast situation” is that the cable company is agreeing to move some workers into the office buildings the Braves are building next door to the stadium (as well as supply some technology to the stadium itself) as part of a sponsorship deal. By “share the revenue upside,” Plant means … okay, I have no idea what he means. The development next to the ballpark isn’t paying any rent or revenue sharing to Cobb County, just an estimated $6 million in property taxes per year, the same property taxes that any development would have to pay.

So Plant’s argument appears to be, “Hey, we’re paying one of the taxes that normal businesspeople have to, what, you want us to pay another one too?” Clearly it’s going to be a tough decision this year for the Nobel committee on chutzpah.

Georgia top court dismisses Falcons bond challenge, Braves challenge next up

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled on the challenge to the Atlanta Falcons stadium bonds, and it did not buy the argument that using the hotel-motel tax that funded the Georgia Dome to now fund its replacement violated the state constitution:

“[T]here is nothing arbitrary or unreasonable about allowing the same taxing entities that already have experience paying for a multipurpose domed stadium facility through the collection of a 7 percent hotel-motel tax…to collect such a tax in the future to fund a different stadium after the first tax has expired,” Justice Harold Melton wrote in the court’s opinion.

That was the last round of appeals for the Falcons suit, so we can stick a fork in it. The Braves bond lawsuit, meanwhile, which rests on whether a baseball stadium is a “public purpose” and which got one of the craziest legal responses ever from the Braves’ crack legal team, is still proceeding, having had a supreme court hearing last month and with a ruling expected in July. I’m not holding my breath or anything, given that courts are usually hesitant about injecting themselves into this kind of development policy even when the law might imply it’s their job to, but it’s still something to keep an eye on.

Cobb County admits it doesn’t know what Braves bridge will cost, that taxpayers will fund it

Hey, what’s up with that Atlanta Braves double-decker bridge that no one knows how much it’ll cost or how to pay for it, you ask? (You really need to work on your grammar.) Well, the Cobb County commission has hired an engineer to design it, but still can’t give any answer on the cost part:

When asked how much the bridge would cost, [] DiMassimo said the county is sticking by its $9 million estimate — a figure they came up with more than a year ago — before officials decided that building a bridge to support the circulator bus would be too expensive.

Asked if the bridge construction cost could be higher, DiMassimo said, “potentially.”

The rest of the article, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s great Dan Klepal, is equally sad-hilarious and worth reading before it disappears behind the AJC’s paywall. My favorite two bits:

And:

This “build the stadium now and figure out how to get people to it later” plan just gets better and better, don’t it?