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?

 

Cobb County now talking double-decker bridge to Braves stadium, cost goes back up again

When last we checked in on the bridge across a highway that Cobb County is going to have to build to get people to the new Atlanta Braves stadium from a neighboring parking lot, county officials were downsizing it to a pedestrian-only bridge to save money. As I remarked at the time:

The Marietta Daily Journal reports that the bridge will now be pedestrian-only, and so significantly cheaper. But also presumably much slower to cross, unless the Braves will be holding an annual Rollerblade Giveaway Night.

Apparently nobody liked my rollerblade idea, because Cobb County is now talking about a double-decker bridge that would carry pedestrians on one level, and shuttle buses on another. Which would be significantly more expensive again — the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dan Klepal notes that a similar bridge elsewhere ended up costing more than $30 million, though the details are now hidden behind the AJC’s paywall.

[UPDATE: Klepal has now provided the paywall-hidden details, and it was actually a 290-foot enclosed pedestrian bridge that $32 million, including design and engineering costs. The new Braves bridge would be 1,100 feet long, be double-decked, and would have to support not just pedestrians but vehicles, likely making it a bit more expensive, yeah.]

That whole approving a stadium in an undeveloped area before figuring out how much it would cost to build transportation infrastructure thing is just working out so well, isn’t it?

Braves argue in court that stadiums are “public purpose” because they just are, duh!

Lawyers the Atlanta Braves have filed a brief responding to the lawsuit charging that Cobb County’s issuance of stadium bonds is illegal because it’s not a “public purpose,” and oh, it is an awesome brief. The reason why stadiums are a public purpose, it turns out, is that everybody knows they are, duh!

The government’s “ability to issue bonds for recreational purposes is broad and well-settled,” the Braves’ brief says. “In the 20th and 21st centuries, financing and constructing sports stadiums and related facilities has repeatedly been held to be a public purpose.

“Opponents of stadium bond financing often point to private benefits in an attempt to undermine the public purpose — and ultimately the constitutionality — of the bonds that have been used. Courts have routinely rejected those arguments because the existence of private benefits is not dispositive — in fact, it is expected.”…

“Each municipality may have its own reasons — economy, tourism, public desire, or city profile — but the end result is almost universally a finding that a public purpose is served …. as long as a recreational benefit of a reasonably general character is conferred on a significant part of the public.

“Any other arguments are simply beside the point.”

So there!

I could line up a long list of economists, urban planners, and even sports fans to testify that building new sports stadiums — especially when you’re just replacing an 18-year-old one a few miles away, as the Braves are — is solely for private profit, not public benefit. But that’s beside the point, as the Braves ownership is clearly staking its defense on the fact that courts have ruled in favor of stadium bonds being a public purpose before, so clearly they must have been right, right? Not any Georgia courts, apparently — the Braves lawyers didn’t cite any Georgia case law despite this being a state supreme court case, as the attorneys for the plaintiffs quickly pointed out — but lots of other courts. Are you saying that you think you know better than other states’ supreme courts, Georgia, hmm? Now just kick these nuts in the butt and let us get on with our stadium-building, okay?

Braves stadium development to feature lens flare, violations of space-time continuum

Renderings! The Atlanta Braves have ‘em, showing what the new pretend urban neighborhood around their new Cobb County stadium will look like when complete! Look, here’s one now:

Takeaways:

  • There will be a mix of modern buildings and retroish buildings, because that’s what people want in their fake urban neighborhoods.
  • The surrounding development will include some small parking lots, with nobody much parking in them, despite a game going on at the time.
  • Some cars are clearly visible on the roads while others are just a blur of head- and taillights, presumably because the architects are those aliens who slipped something in Kirk’s coffee to accelerate him to multiple times normal human speed.
  • The near future will include a really awful Jack & Jones ad campaign.
  • Enough lens flare to kill J.J. Abrams.

Really, though, none of this matters, because these are just sketches meant as a sales pitch for businesses to locate in the project (or as the Atlanta Journal Constitution paraphrased Braves VP Derek Schiller’s explanation, “the concept of project’s look, not the final design”). The eventual development could look like this, or it could look like something else, or it could never get built. It’s important to remember that you’re looking at an ad here, even if it’s a slightly more attractive one than that fake Jack & Jones thing.

Cobb County chair won’t face ethics charges over secret Braves deal, because that’s not the ethics board’s table

I am so, so, so sorry: I failed to keep you guys updated on the outcome of the ethics investigation into Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee, who secretly hired a lawyer to negotiate an Atlanta Braves stadium deal without even telling his fellow commission members and then lied about having done so, then got brought up before the county ethics board on ethics charges, then claimed he couldn’t be charged because county ethics rules aren’t really rules so much as suggestions. Last Thursday, the ethics board handed down its ruling:

The ethics case against Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee has been dismissed.

Sorry, what?

Thursday evening, the Cobb Ethics Board was all set to conduct a long hearing on the charges that Cobb resident Tom Cheeks [sic – it’s actually “Cheek”] brought against Lee. But then, on the advice of the Ethics Board’s attorney — and to Cheeks’ surprise — the board suddenly dismissed two of the charges against Lee.

Then Cheeks himself got up and withdrew the third and final charge. Cheeks said that because Lee had apologized earlier, that was good enough for Cheeks.

Apparently what the board’s attorney, Bob Grayson, advised was that violations of the Open Records Act should be addressed in court, not by the ethics board. Why this advice came at the last minute, and why Cheek then decided to throw in the towel, isn’t exactly clear, nor is who if anyone will now pursue this in court, but apparently now it’s okay in Cobb County to violate the law if you apologize for it later.

Finally, Cheek told the Marietta Daily Journal yesterday that he’s not sorry about filing the ethics complaint, even though it cost the county $10,000 in legal fees (mostly to hire the lawyers who eventually told the board to dismiss the complaint, after 70 hours of work?!), because “Transparent government — you can’t put a price tag on that.” Charges are now expected to be filed against Cheek in the Cobb County Board of Irony.

Cobb County still has no idea how much Braves bridge will cost or how to pay for it

There’s now a rendering of the bridge that will take Atlanta Braves fans from their cars to the game! And one whole paragraph of details before you hit the Atlanta Journal Constitution paywall!

Cobb County officials say they intend to build a bridge to link the Braves stadium and mixed-use development to thousands of parking spaces on the other side of I-285, even though one year after the announcement they still don’t know how much the bridge will cost or how the county will pay for its half.

On second thought, that’s probably about all you need to know about this: Cobb County still needs a bridge to get people from the off-site parking, on the other side of a major highway, to the new stadium. And it still has no idea how to pay for it, thanks to approving everything else about stadium construction before actually finishing the required transportation agreement.

This is, to put it mildly, likely to be an issue. Everybody going to Braves games is going to drive, both because there will be no meaningful public transit to the new stadium, and because everybody in Atlanta drives everywhere anyway. The Braves owners, for the moment at least, have no plans to build parking on the actual stadium parcel, because they want to save that for building celebrity chef–driven restaurants. So we’re looking at the prospect of Cobb County having to shell out as much as $80 million extra for a new bridge so that fans can trudge long distances from the parking lots to their seats, or maybe sit in traffic on shuttle buses waiting to be driven the last stretch of the trip. [UPDATE: The Marietta Daily Journal reports that the bridge will now be pedestrian-only, and so significantly cheaper. But also presumably much slower to cross, unless the Braves will be holding an annual Rollerblade Giveaway Night.]

Long commute times are something that football fans, say, will often put up with, since going to an NFL game kills your entire Sunday anyway. But the Braves should be seriously worried that long delays in getting to and from their games will kill attendance on weeknights in particular, when people have a limited time to get from work to the game. And having fans spend all their pregame time fighting their way to the stadium isn’t going to help get them into those celebrity chef–driven restaurants for dinner beforehand.

It’s why I told the AJC that “this could easily end up one of those rare lose-lose-lose situations,” where the county ends up losing money (not only because of unknown transportation infrastructure costs, but because the county is counting on tax receipts from the stadium-side development to help recoup their $300 million in subsidies), the Braves end up losing money (because attendance tanks when people realize how hard it is to get to games and back), and fans end up with a worse gameday experience. Except for nicer cupholders, I guess. And who can put a price on those?