Cobb County Commission chair could be ousted over Braves stadium subsidies

So far the list of politicians booted out of office for throwing money at stadium subsidies has been a relatively short one, consisting of Wisconsin state senator George Petak, who was recalled by voters in 1996 for casting the deciding vote for public money for a new Milwaukee Brewers stadium, plus arguably Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was recalled by voters in 2011 after he fought for public money for a new Miami Marlins stadium, though he was recalled for other reasons as well. (The list of mayors booted for not throwing money at stadiums is even shorter, namely zero.) They may need to make room soon, however, for Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee, who is now facing a July runoff against an opponent who has been using Lee’s support of public funding for a new Atlanta Braves stadium as a key campaign push:

Chairman Tim Lee barely made it into a runoff against Mike Boyce, a retired Marine colonel who outpolled Lee by clobbering the county’s stadium deal with the Atlanta Braves…

“I simply asked the question: If I can vote on a $40 million park bond, why can’t I vote on a $350 million stadium bond?” said Boyce in an interview Tuesday night as the runoff scenario was emerging.

Lee, you will remember, didn’t only approve $355 million or more in county spending on that Braves stadium without a public vote, he also got brought up on ethics charges for hiring a lawyer for the project with county money without even telling his fellow commissioners about it. (He got out of that one by saying he was sorry and would never do it again. No, really.) So if anyone deserves to have his political future be a referendum on stadium subsidies, it’s Lee. Vote early and vote often, Cobb County!

Atlanta Braves now officially a “real estate business,” because they’re sure not a baseball team

Bloomberg Businessweek has a long article up this week on the Atlanta Braves‘ success at getting half a billion dollars in public subsidies for stadiums for their entire major- and minor-league chain of teams, which includes these memorable lines:

Says Joel Maxcy, a sports economist at Drexel University: “If there’s one thing the Braves know how to do, it’s how to get money out of taxpayers.”…

“The whole deal was very much behind closed doors,” says Michael Hotchkiss, a Pearl native, then an editor at the Clarion-Ledger [of the team’s deal for $28 million in public funds for a Double-A ballpark in Pearl, Mississippi]. “By the time it was public, the whole thing was done.”…

“There was no transparency,” says Lisa Cupid, one of [Cobb] county’s five commissioners [of the Atlanta Braves stadium deal]. By the time the commission got the chance to see the documents, the details had already been negotiated. Her fellow commissioners, she says, “were all just excited to be asked to the dance.”

Sense a theme here? The Braves owners may be spectacularly bad at putting together a winning baseball team (though you can make an argument that they’re following the model set by the bust-to-boom Houston Astros, though the Astros are currently in last place now as well), but they’re expert in getting stadium money approved before anyone can notice what’s going on. That’s a real skill, especially in a subsidy world where public attention only gets lawmakers thinking about what they’re doing before voting on it, and you don’t want that.

All of which leads up to the article’s impeccable last paragraph:

During a question-and-answer with shareholders in April, [team owner John] Malone shrugged off the Braves’ slow start. “Keep in mind,” he said, “the Braves now are a fairly major real estate business as opposed to just a baseball club.”

And it’s way easier and more predictable to run a baseball club as a real estate business. Plots of land never blow out their elbows.

Taxpayer cost of Braves stadium passes $350m, heads for $400m

Atlanta Braves fans worried about having to get to the new stadium by running across a six-lane highway, rejoice! The Cobb County Commission yesterday approved $10 million for a new pedestrian bridge from the planned parking lots to the stadium, which will surely — wait, what’s that, Atlanta Journal Constitution report from two months ago?

Oh, right, the land — the county still needs to acquire that from its private owners, which may require eminent domain. (A county spokesperson told reporters of land costs, “The right of way is still in negotiations so we can’t release any figures.”) Also money needs to be found for an upgraded parking deck to connect to the bridge. Also also, nobody is really convinced that the bridge can be built for $10 million, so this could easily be one of those Robert Moses-esque schemes to build half of a bridge and then find the rest of the money later — as Moses liked to say, “‘Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.”

The commission also approved another $13 million to widen a highway and create a new pedestrian plaza (not the one eliminated last month, I don’t think, but on the other side of the interstate). So add that to the known costs that the public is already on the hook for, and we’re at a minimum of $355 million in taxpayer subsidies, plus whatever the land and parking deck upgrades will go for. If it hits $400 million, don’t be surprised — this is what happens when you sign a deal to build a stadium project before you figure out how much it’s going to cost.

Cobb County cuts plaza from Braves bridge budget, still has no clue how much durn thing will cost

Cobb County’s Atlanta Braves stadium hellbridge continues to go very, very badly. The latest development: The county has scrapped a planned pedestrian plaza in order to keep the bridge from busting its $10 million budget.

After making the long trek across the bridge to SunTrust Park, pedestrians were going to be treated to a park-like plaza with manicured landscaping, a fountain of water cascading down steps, benches and an elevator to get back up to the bridge…

Jim Wilgus, Cobb’s interim transportation director, told the AJC last month that the plaza was “value engineered” out of the project. What will take its place?

“There is a set of stairs,” Wilgus replied through email.

Which, you know, fine: Manicured landscaping is all well and good, but the point of a pedestrian/bus bridge is to get people to and from their cars before and after games, so how pretty the view is on the way is kind of an unnecessary frill. Except that more cuts could still be coming, because nobody actually knows how much the bridge itself will cost:

Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the stadium area, said he doesn’t think anyone at the county knows what the final price will be. … “All I know is that as a commissioner, I have not seen a budget for the project,” Ott said. “I would hope that next week the commissioners will be shown it.”

On the bright (?) side, the county is considering using eminent domain condemnation to seize property it needs for the bridge approaches, which the private owners have been refusing to sell. It would still need to pay what a court decides is fair value for the land, though. And there’s still no stated solution at all to how it’s going to get all their fans across a bridge with only one lane for shuttle buses and one narrow pedestrian path for those on foot — not to mention how it will prevent pedestrians from spilling over into the bus lane and blocking traffic once their side of the bridge becomes impassably clogged.

This still has all the makings of a complete disaster, in other words. Good thing the Braves are projected to be unwatchably bad for the near future, so at least the bridgepocalypse can maybe get delayed for a couple of seasons.

Braves bridge design still lacks price tag, land approval, room for many buses

I am so, so sorry that I failed to keep you all abreast of recent developments with the Atlanta Braves‘ pedestrian bridge that no one knows how much it will cost or if they can get the rights to the land for it or if it’ll ever be built. And here when the bridge finally got its long-awaited approval:

[Cobb County] commissioners voted Tuesday night on the current proposal for the bridge crossing Interstate 285 to the Atlanta Braves’ new ballpark, which has been a lightning rod for more than a year…

A proposal put the cost for construction of the structure at less than $10 million, largely paid though a federal grant and the Cumberland Community Improvement District.

Okay, $10 million isn’t all that bad, considering what some earlier estimates had been. And at least this means Cobb County must have finally figured out that problem with getting rights to the land where the bridge would be built and

So… they actually haven’t figured any of this out. Last week’s county commission vote, it turns out, just approved the design of the bridge, not the cost or how to acquire the land — all that will get worked out later, and if it costs more than $9.8 million once they put it out to bid from contractors, they’ll (sorry) cross that bridge when they come to it. So this means nothing, basically.

As for that design, there is now an actual video rendering of how the bridge would appear if viewed from a helicopter flying dangerously low over passing traffic:

The first thing I notice here, aside from the fact that Braves fans appear to all be half-materialized cybermen, is that there’s only one lane for shuttle buses, meaning either each bus is going to have to wait while the previous bus heads back to pick up more passengers (which isn’t going to work too well) or there will need to be a huge stack of buses in the parking lot that will bring fans across before the game, then wait on the stadium side to bring them back to the lot afterwards (which also probably isn’t going to work too well). Building two lanes would be way more expensive, though, so this is what Braves fans are going to get — if they get anything at all, that is.

Turner Field to be converted into college football stadium, add housing and retail

The has announced that it’s selling Turner Field, soon-to-be-former home of the Braves, to a consortium made up of

Which, sure, fine enough, though there’s no actual development agreement yet, so it’s tough to say what this all would actually look like. And given that local residents are in the middle of a community planning process and complaining that they want things to hold off until that’s complete anyway, that’s arguably a good thing. But anyway, if you were concerned that your cherished memories of, um, something good that happened at Turner Field (involving Chipper Jones, maybe?) were going to be bulldozed, it looks like that’ll only partly be the case.

Public’s Braves stadium tab nears $350m on road and transit costs

The invaluable Dan Klepal of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has done a new tally of all the additional infrastructure costs for the new Atlanta Braves stadium, and it includes:

  • $41 million in road projects, to be paid off using a combination of local, state and federal money
  • $3.4 million for new buses, plus $1.2 million a year (figure $15 million in present value) for a new tram running around the stadium area
  • At least $9 million for a new pedestrian bridge over I-285 to get people from the parking lot to the stadium, assuming it doesn’t cost much more than that, and also assuming it doesn’t get scrapped entirely.
  • A bunch of other projects that were already on the drawing board but may now get funded because of the stadium, including a $4.3 million firehouse in Cumberland and a possible $500 million bus rapid transit project.

Not all of that would be solely to benefit the Braves, of course, but we’re certainly looking at an additional $60-70 million in public costs just for stadium-related improvements, on top of $276 million in direct subsidies. (Klepal has the direct subsidy cost at closer to $400 million, but he then subtracts out the rent the Braves will be paying to Cobb County, whereas I’ve deducted it from the initial figure — same math, different way of writing the equation.) I know everyone likes to have one solid cost figure to throw out there, so let’s go with “almost $350 million” — but if you want to count everything that the county will be spending money on at least in part because of the Braves, the figure could end up way higher. Sure hope they’ll at least get to watch Freddie Freeman for that price.

Cobb County to spend $1.2m a year on shuttle buses to Braves stadium, says this is mere coincidence

If you’re still wondering how the Atlanta Braves are going to get fans to their new stadium way out on the outskirts of town — no, not how to get fans from their cars to the ballpark across a forbidding highway, but how to get fans there who don’t use cars at all — a partial answer may come today, when the Cobb County Commission is set to vote on buying buses for a $1.2-million-a-year shuttle bus system that is totally not just for the Braves, how could you even think that?

One solution is what county officials call a circulator bus system. Rooted in the Cumberland Mall Area Transfer Station, buses would run routes connecting Cumberland area hotspots — and parking spots — and the new ballpark.

Critics say it’s plainly a taxpayer subsidy for the Braves. “And that’s not public transit. That’s a Braves shuttle. And we don’t feel the taxpayers should be paying for that,” said Kenneth Howell, a Cobb Community Transit bus driver and member of the Georgia Community Coalition. Howell says taxpayers are already likely to get hooked for the delayed pedestrian bridge across Interstate 285, connecting the ballpark and Cumberland.

But county officials say the bus circulator won’t just serve the Braves. It will also serve other major destinations in Cumberland, a dynamic and growing commercial area – at a reported operating cost of $1.2 million per year, paid by hotel taxes.

So should we count this new cost — present value of about $15 million, plus whatever it costs to buy the buses — as part of the county’s Braves subsidy? Probably, especially since the history of transit improvements built for stadiums being used by anybody else is not a long and gloried one. But at this point another $15 million or so is a relative drop in the bucket on top of the $300 million or so the county is already kicking in, so take your pick.

Pinellas County hedges on Braves spring training plan, blames St. Pete for Rays “stalemate”

Pinellas County commissioners took no action on the controversial Atlanta Braves spring training proposal that would eat up between $6.5 million and $10.5 million in annual subsidies, plus a prime development site, and they know who they want to blame for this: The St. Petersburg city council for not letting them know if they should save the land and money for a potential Tampa Bay Rays stadium.

“We are being held hostage not being able to make a decision, and we have a responsibility to our taxpayers to do that,” Commissioner Janet Long said. “We can’t just be held hostage forever because some partner can’t make a decision, and there’s a difference between being a partner and practicing extortion.”

Chairman John Morroni said the St. Petersburg council elections in November could sway the longtime stalemate on negotiations with the Rays, which could immediately impact the county’s decision on Toytown.

That word “stalemate” showed up in just about every news story on the Pinellas talks today, and it’s dead wrong: The St. Petersburg council isn’t stuck making a decision, people. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has a lease that runs through 2027, and he asked to buy his way out of it, and the St. Pete council said, “No, thanks.” A stalemate implies an impasse toward a needed decision, but a decision’s been made here — Sternberg isn’t happy with it, but it’s done unless he chooses to make another offer.

Anyway, the Tampa Bay sports media are all awful (okay, not you, Noah). But then, that’s nothing new.

Braves propose Tampa Bay spring training complex, MLB says “Hey, leave some subsidies for the Rays”

My apologies for not keeping you all updated before now on the Atlanta Braves spring training controversy in Tampa Bay, which has now managed to draw the Rays stadium mess into its orbit:

Tempest in a teacup, most likely, but a pretty darn entertaining one, if only for MLB having to come up with a way to say, “Thanks for throwing money at our spring training facilities, but please throw money at our big-league teams first.”