Cobb County is bulldozing 30 homes to make way for road to Braves stadium

What’s worse than living in Cobb County and having to pay more than $355 million toward a new Atlanta Braves stadium, plus dealing with a traffic and transit mess because the county didn’t approve a transportation plan before agreeing to build the stadium? I’m going to go with “having to pay more than $355 million toward a new Atlanta Braves stadium, plus dealing with a traffic and transit mess because the county didn’t approve a transportation plan before agreeing to build the stadium, plus having your house torn down to make way for the whole mess“:

Tuesday night, Cobb County informed me I’d have to find a new front door, and a new house, because they’re bulldozing both to build a new road…

Why this new road? So the folks who take the new managed lanes along Interstate 75 can easily hop off the freeway at Terrell Mill Road and get to the new stadium quickly. The stadium I was so happy about.

If it wasn’t all so ironic, I would cry.

County officials say they’re seizing 16 homes by eminent domain — and possibly as many as another 15 — for a road project that had been planned for years, but was expedited because of the opening of the stadium next year. So you can’t exactly say “Cobb County is bulldozing 30 homes to make way for a road to Braves stadium” — actually, you can totally say that, even if they might have maybe done it at some point with or without the Braves. Economic development, everybody!

Cobb County chair who masterminded Braves deal gets booted in landslide

Voters in Cobb County, Georgia went to the polls last night for a runoff election between Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee and his challenger Mike Boyce, and it wasn’t close: Boyce trounced Lee, 64-36%. And the main issue in the campaign was Lee’s engineering of $350-million-plus in public subsidies for a stadium to lure the Atlanta Braves to the suburbs, a deal concocted in secret, pushed through in just two weeks with little public debate, and approved before finalizing a transportation plan, leading to possible traffic and transit nightmares; Boyce remarked following the vote, “

Lee’s name is now added to the list of elected officials who were bounced from office for giving public money to pro sports teams against the wishes of their constituents, joining Wisconsin state senator George Petak (recalled by voters in 1996 for casting the deciding vote for public money for a new Milwaukee Brewers stadium) and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez (recalled by voters in 2011 after advocating public money for a new Miami Marlins stadium). That’s a short list, but it’s still longer than the list of local officials who were booted because they didn’t approve sports subsidies — Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is the only arguable member of that club, and he was more reviled by voters for not putting down salt on roads before a snowstorm and leaving the entire city paralyzed, then giving himself a “B” grade for his snow removal efforts.

So once we’re all finished dancing on Lee’s grave, what happens now with the train wreck that is the Braves stadium? Probably not a whole lot: According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Boyce indicated that “

As for Lee himself, he’ll probably have job options despite “couldn’t even find 15,000 people to vote for him” on his resume. The record in past ousters is mixed: Petak immediately landed a job with Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the man who’d talked him into switching his Brewers stadium vote; Alvarez won an over-60 bodybuilding contest and then was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend in a fight over his cat. If I’m Lee, I’d try to go the former route — Georgia does have a Republican governor who has backed the Braves project, so that’s always an option. Or, hey, the Braves could use a shortstop, and Lee probably wouldn’t hit much worse than the incumbent.

If nothing else, at least, we can rest assured that after two pricey stadium deals for the Braves and Falcons, Atlanta area residents have learned their lesson about signing on to large public subsidies to replace buildings that are barely 20 years old. Why, I bet no one could even propose something like that now without getting laughed out of

Compared to many other NBA teams, Phillips Arena is an old barn. I haven’t been to any of them, but I don’t have to. All that’s necessary is to crank up a recent edition of NBA 2K to see how far behind Phillips Arena is from like The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, or even The Amway Center in Orlando. … The Hawks provide their fans with a great product. How badly would some other cities like to have eight consecutive playoff seasons and counting in a row? … The only reason for the poor attendance has to be the almost-twenty year arena they have to perform in.

Sigh. Okay, settle in, we may yet be here a while.

Cobb County lets Braves ban vendors around new stadium, doesn’t cite “safety” this time

Another day, another article about how much Cobb County has bent over backwards to ensure that the Atlanta Braves owners can extract every last dollar from their new stadium, even at the expense of other local business operators:

The ordinance, passed in February, requires vendors who wish to operate in unincorporated areas of the county to obtain a license in order to sell or distribute retail or food items from a cart or kiosk. But a provision in the ordinance gives those in charge of “mixed-use development districts” the power to construct a plan that sets where vending activity can take place, and, according to Dana Johnson, Cobb’s community development director, those who manage such a district could decide not to designate any areas for vending as part of the plan, which has to be approved by the Cobb Board of Commissioners.

Johnson said just one area in the county qualifies under that provision — SunTrust Park, the Braves’ future home stadium, and The Battery Atlanta, a mixed-use development being built next to it.

In other words, the Braves ownership has veto power over anyone else selling anything in the entire development around their new stadium, meaning if you want to buy a bag of peanuts or a bottle of water, you’ll have to do so at Braves-approved prices.

Cobb County is currently reviewing this ordinance, along with the one against anyone other than the Braves renting out parking spaces — like that one, violators of the vending ordinance would be subject to both fines and jail time — because they and the Braves know it looks terrible, plus Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee is in a tough re-election battle with a runoff vote coming up in two weeks. (Actually early voting has already begun.) If Lee gets re-elected, want to bet that the commission decides that the ordinances are just fine as is?

Cobb County rethinks throwing people in jail for renting bootleg parking spaces to Braves fans

After more reports of just how awful the Atlanta Braves nobody-can-rent-parking-spaces-but-us ordinance is — the Atlanta Journal Constitution revealed this week that anyone offering parking within half a mile of the Braves’ new stadium could be subject to up to 60 days in jail — Cobb County has finally decided maybe this isn’t the best way to throw a bone to the Braves owners:

That’s awfully vague, mind you, and doesn’t preclude continuing to use the ban on anyone other than the Braves renting parking spaces on game days as a stick with which to arm-twist local parking lot owners into renting their spaces to the team at cheap rates. (Can you twist arms with a stick? Enh, poetic license.) If Cobb County leaders are indeed walking this back, we should find out on , when the county will be holding their first public hearing on the proposed ordinance. That’s also the day that current county commission chair (and Braves stadium deal architect) Tim Lee and his opponent Mike Boyce face a runoff election, so that could be a very interesting 24 hours.

Cobb County gave Braves monopoly on all game-day parking, says it’s a “safety” thing

Just when you think the Atlanta Braves stadium deal can’t get any worse — it goes and gets worse! The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dan Klepal dug up the latest gift that Cobb County has awarded the Braves owners: a ban on any private entities within a half-mile of the new taxpayer-funded stadium renting out their parking spaces to Braves fans.

Commissioners in February quietly passed an ordinance that outlaws property owners within a half-mile of the stadium from charging for parking during games and other special events at the stadium…

“This irks the (heck) out of me,” said [local office building owner Fred] Beloin, who has previously tangled with the county over zoning around the stadium, and was unaware of the ordinance until told about it an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter. “They say they’re increasing my property value and then they do everything in their power to make sure I get no benefit out of it.”

The ordinance closes off potential revenue for dozens of businesses that own more than 10,000 private spaces — many of which could compete with the team for parking revenue.

The way that it works: The new ordinance says that you need an “accessory special event parking license” to rent out your parking spots during Braves games, and such a license “will not be issued if primary access to the accessory special event parking area is from public right-of‐way within the limited access zone.” (I.e., if you drive there on a public road, i.e., everywhere within half a mile of the stadium.) The Braves themselves are exempt from needing a license, as a “major tourist attraction.”

Klepal’s article says that “the restriction could mean fewer parking options on game days, making it less convenient or more expensive to go to a stadium with no direct MARTA access,” but it’s unlikely that this is the Braves owners’ intent. Rather, it puts private parking lot owners over a barrel as the Braves try to negotiate to rent their spaces for use during games — as I told Klepal for his story, “One good way to get leverage is to make the thing you’re negotiating for worthless to the other party. And that’s precisely what Cobb County’s ordinance tries to do.”

As for the county and team officials that put this Braves parking monopoly in place, they say they never meant to discriminate against private parking lot owners, who they said can file appeals to the county if they want to rent out their own spaces on game days. Rather, they said, it’s about … safety. Safety?

“We know that when fans come to a Braves game, no matter where they park, they associate their experience with the Braves,” Plant said. “Our concerns focused mainly on two areas — safety of the fans and the free flow of vehicles through the areas around the ballpark.

“With that in mind, we requested that the county create an ordinance covering an area around the ballpark to protect fans who are attending the game and ensure that they receive the same safety, security and convenience provided in the lots we control.”

Run that by me again? Denying private parking lot owners the right to let Braves fans park there helps provide fans with “safety, security and convenience” because, I guess, quality control? Except that there’s nothing in the ordinance talking about the quality of the parking — the only way this ensures fan safety is if you assume the Braves can provide a safer experience than local business owners, which would be dubious even if we weren’t talking about a team that regularly has people fall to their deaths at games.

FoS reader Andrew Ross points out that this may be the lamest excuse for a self-interested policy since the Philadelphia Eagles tried to ban outside food at their stadium on the grounds that someone might smuggle in an exploding hoagie. It may well end the same way that controversy did, with team officials sheepishly repealing their attempt at a revenue grab amid the public uproar, but expect a few months of lawsuits first, at the least.

Braves stadium deal may not be worst ever, but that’s grading on a pretty steep curve

In my latest for Vice Sports, I take a look at the ever-sadder Atlanta Braves stadium mess, and ask whether it’s the worst stadium deal ever. Fans of Betteridge’s Law, let alone regular readers of this site, will know how that turns out, but suffice to say it’s an honor for them even to be part of the conversation. Not an honor in the good sense, mind you, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Anyway, it also features amusing observations from Victor Matheson and J.C. Bradbury, so go read it now!

Tim Lee steamed at reports he siphoned off parks money for Braves stadium (but yeah, he sure did)

Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee has spoken out about yesterday’s report that the commission diverted money from a public parks project approved by voters to the Atlanta Braves stadium deal, saying it’s all a load of hooey:

“Contrary to several unsourced and wholly fictitious news articles, Cobb County didn’t choose the Braves stadium over buying green space and it won’t need to raise taxes to do so,” Lee said, in a statement. “We have cut taxes for three straight years in Cobb County because we’ve focused on policies that promote economic growth — and they’ve worked.”

I went back to the original Atlanta Journal Constitution article detailing the parks bond controversy, and checked in with its author Dan Klepal as well, and I’m comfortable saying that Lee’s statement is a case of he who smelt hooey dealt it. The story is a bit complicated, but it goes something like this:

  • In 2006, Cobb County voters approved a property tax hike to pay for $40 million in bonds for public parkland. The tax was raised, and the parks were bought.
  • Two years later, Cobb County voters approved another $40 million in park bonds, to be funded by the same property tax surcharge. Cobb County Commission’s then-chair Sam Olens, however, never issued the bonds, because he worried the tax hike would have to be extended to pay for it.
  • In 2013, Lee and his fellow commissioners, needing money to shovel at the Braves for their new stadium, realized that the 2006 park bonds would be paid off in 2017, and that property tax hike cash would just be sitting there for the taking. So he took it, extending the tax surcharge for another 30 years, just like Olens didn’t want to do, but taking the money away from the parks budget, just like Cobb voters didn’t want him to do.

Lee now says he can come up with about half the money to pay for the voter-approved parks purchase without raising taxes, which I guess he sees as justifying the statement that “Cobb County didn’t choose the Braves stadium over buying green space.” (We can do both! If you don’t mind the green space being a bit less, uh, spacious.) But as far as taking a tax hike that was approved in order to fund public parks and instead funneling it into a private baseball stadium, yeah, he totally did that. You’d think he’d at least have the courage to wear it with pride, but politicians on the verge of getting voted out of office will do some desperate things.

Cobb County spent all its money on Braves stadium, doesn’t have enough left for public parks

In 2008, voters in Cobb County, Georgia, approved a $40 million bond issue to acquire and build new public parks. The money still hasn’t been spent yet, though, because at first it was delayed by the Great Recession (are we still calling it that?) and now by certain other spending priorities:

County officials say only $20 million will be available to buy park land.

Many of those public speakers at the commissioners’ meetings have wondered why the full amount could not be made available through the debt service fund, requiring no tax increase, since the commissioners were able to fund nearly $400 million for the Atlanta Braves to move to Cobb…

Commission Chairman Tim Lee has said a tax increase would now be needed to pay for the $40 million Park Bond 2008.

This guy is really trying hard to lose the election, isn’t he?

It’s worthwhile to note that this isn’t just a case of the county spending general revenue on the stadium and having none left over for parks, which would be bad enough; rather, the county actually redirected tax revenue that had been earmarked for public parks to pay for the stadium bonds, even though the park project was approved by voters, and the stadium never was. I’d say something snarky here about Cobb County’s attitude toward democracy, but Lee has already managed that quite nicely himself.

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.