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.”

Braves’ new home seeks to add new circle of hell to the stadium business model

The Atlanta Braves held their official opening day for their new stadium on Friday, two weeks after holding their unofficial opening day, and all was mostly uneventful, unless you count the massive traffic tieup from a foam tomahawk spill two days earlier.

While most of the media coverage focused on the new stadium’s food options and other amenities (1,300 televisions! blackened catfish po’ boy tacos! beer aged from bat shavings!), ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle took a harder look at what makes the new Cobb County stadium different. And, as you might imagine, much of it has to do with being in Cobb County, far from the city center:

The last time I saw so many people slow-walking on bridges over an Atlanta highway it was on “The Walking Dead.”

They spilled in from everywhere Friday, on concrete bridges slung over highways they had successfully traversed to get to SunTrust Park. They crowded in a wide line, on concrete suspensions, above a morass of multilaned freeways. They found their way into the New Urbanist neighborhood. Then they crowded into the brand-new stadium for the first regular-season game.

Yes, the bridge to nowhere opened just in time for Friday’s game, though I haven’t been able to find any photos of what it actually looked like with people on it. (Here it is with no people on it.) But the more interesting aspect of the stadium, and of Doolittle’s article, is that New Urbanist neighborhood:

Any reviews of the new park wouldn’t be complete without mentioning The Battery, a mixed-used development that combines a yet-to-open hotel that looms over center field, bars, restaurants, office buildings and apartments, of which some are still vacant.

The Battery’s hotel will have high-dollar rooms on its stadium side, where guests can chill on a balcony and take in the ballgame. Really, The Battery is what marks this particular stadium project as distinct as any that came before it, and the success of it will likely determine the success of the entire endeavor…

It’s more than a park. It’s an experiment, one where a sports franchise attempts to create a bubble. And once a fan enters it, there is no reason for him or her to spend money outside of it. And if it works, the ramifications will be noticed by baseball owners from coast to coast. If it works, it could change a lot of things. But we won’t know if it works for a long time.

Creating a bubble in which sports fans spend all their money isn’t new, of course — it’s the same reason the Baltimore Orioles have the Eutaw Street shopping strip inside the Camden Yards gates, and the Boston Red Sox insisted on the right to close off Yawkey Way on game days, and the New York Yankees built their “five-star hotel with a ballfield in the middle.” But no one has gone as far as the Braves in building an entire faux neighborhood around their new stadium, hoping that fans will want to spend enough money there before and after games that they can build a booming shopping district — one where the team owners control all the revenue.

Color me skeptical, at least for now: “Ballpark villages” haven’t tended to be huge successes, in part because ballparks are closed most of the year, making running a restaurant based on ballpark clientele a tricky matter; and in part because when you’re already sitting through a three-hour ballgame that you have to fight your way through Atlanta traffic to get to, going out for dinner before or after the game isn’t always the first thing on your mind. If the Braves owners do beat the odds, though, it’s potentially a game changer for the stadium business, in that team owners will no longer be satisfied merely with a new stadium jammed with bells and whistles and steakhouses, but will want to get to run their own pretend urban neighborhood around it. That’s not something that’d necessarily be limited to suburban areas, and I really hope it’s a demand we never see becoming standard business practice — but who am I kidding, somebody’s going to ask for it regardless, because you can’t get if you don’t ask, right?