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.

Sacramento to flood downtown with lights and cops so Kings fans aren’t afraid of new arena

With the Sacramento Kings‘ new arena set to open in October, where’s that transformation it’s supposed to create for its downtown neighborhood, according to the standard pro-arena-development line? Part of it is coming, but it’s taxpayers who will be paying for it:

Likely beginning this week, the city will install 104 pedestrian-level streetlamps on dimly lit blocks leading to the arena as well as several parts of midtown. The $1.7 million lighting program will supplement added police patrols, new police cameras and volunteer guides who will work the streets around the arena during events.

The hope is to make newcomers to downtown feel safer, and to encourage more people to stick around at bars and restaurants before and after games when the arena opens this fall.

None of this is bad, per se. But the notion that sports venues automatically make people flock to an area takes a bit of a hit when the story becomes “build it, and then build new streetlights and flood the area with police patrols and cameras, and they will come.” The Sacramento Bee report adds that “the arena building itself has been designed to serve as a beacon, with glass walls allowing interior light to spill onto adjoining walkways and streets,” though that’s not going to do much for pedestrians on the 200+ nights a year where nothing’s going on at the arena.

If there’s another concern, it’s that the Bee reports that most of the arrests downtown currently are for drug possession, so this at least raises the specter of Sacramento police doing sweeps of downtown for unapproved citizens who might freak out the basketball-goers. “Revitalization” is a complex, murky concept, one that’s not always easily captured in a “does it look different than before?” snapshot, as much as boosters and journalists alike sometimes like to pretend it can be.

Economics of pulling NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte overblown, but still power in shame

The NBA finally made it official last night that it was moving next year’s All-Star game out of Charlotte in protest against North Carolina’s law banning both LGBT antidiscrimination laws and people using bathrooms that don’t match their “birth gender,” and this is how the New York Times chose to lead its story:

The National Basketball Association on Thursday dealt a blow to the economy and prestige of North Carolina by pulling next February’s All-Star Game from Charlotte to protest a state law that eliminated anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Prestige? Definitely. If anyone in the nation didn’t already think of North Carolina as “that state where they check your birth certificate before letting you pee,” they sure will now. Economy? Meh.

I’ve covered the myth that big sports events create a massive benefit for local economies at length both here and elsewhere — short version is, yes, having lots of people come to town for a few days generates some more economic activity, but not that much, since 1) a lot of the money goes straight to league pockets without landing in the local economy (leakage) and 2) everyone else steers clear of town those days who would otherwise be there, which cancels out the new visitors (substitution). How much is an All-Star Game actually worth? For the 2014 All-Star Game in Minneapolis, the estimate of new economic activity in the state was $21 million to $55 million; for the 2010 All-Star Game in Dallas, the estimate is zero. (And note that this is total economic activity; for actual tax revenue received, move the decimal point over at least one place.) The numbers might be a bit higher if you just looked at city economic activity rather than state, but “Now that Charlotte won’t have the NBA All-Star Game it won’t be able to cannibalize spending from Raleigh!” isn’t exactly the best rallying cry.

But that’s actually fine — the point of maneuvers like this is less to hit local politicians in the pocketbook than to not allow them to play in any reindeer games. I used to know a lot of people in the international anti-apartheid movement, and they always said that one often overlooked piece of the decades-long struggle to force South Africa to allow blacks basic human rights was the international sports boycott: White South Africans, it turned out, could put up with constant protests and world economic sanctions and even guerrilla attacks better than they could with having their soccer and rugby and cricket teams locked out of those sports’ World Cups. It wasn’t the only factor by a long shot, but it did play a key role in getting F.W. de Klerk and his generation to the negotiating table.

North Carolina isn’t being shut out of competing nationally, of course, it’s just losing an All-Star Game that, frankly, nobody really cares about. It’s still shame, though, and makes me wonder what would happen if, say, the NBA refused to let any of its teams play regular-season games in Charlotte on the same moral grounds. That would be fascinating to see, and while I don’t really believe it’s going to happen, it would certainly be putting the league’s money where its mouth is.

Islanders owners discussing new arena in Queens or LI, all hell about to break loose

So when new New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky answered questions last week about the team’s future — previously planned to include staying in Brooklyn but playing six games a year in a renovated Nassau Coliseum — by saying “Barclays Center is our home,” I called it “noncommittal,” on the grounds that 1) Ledecky was still pretty gripey about the flaws of the Brooklyn arena and 2) “Barclays Center is our home” could mean either “we would never leave a place with so many important memories made over the last nine months” or “it’s where we live, we have to deal with it until we figure out something better. It sounded like typical owner weasel words, a way to keep your options open without actually saying you wanted to keep your options open.

But even I didn’t expect this, just a week later:

The New York Islanders are in talks with the owners of baseball’s New York Mets about building a hockey arena adjacent to Citi Field in Queens, people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Willets Point is emerging as a persuasive alternative to the team’s current home at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center if the Islanders’s owners and arena officials can’t agree on a series of hockey-specific improvements, said the people, who asked for anonymity because the negotiations are private.

That was from Bloomberg News, but the anonymous sources were soon talking as well to Newsday (which cited “two people familiar with the situation”) and the New York Post (just “sources” — the Post doesn’t get too hung up on attribution). The Post’s article also included this tidbit:

But if that doesn’t work out, Islanders owners Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin could move the team to Elmont, LI, sources said…

A state source confirmed the Islanders have made preliminary inquiries about moving the club to vacant state-owned land near Belmont Park. That is near another parcel being eyed by the Cosmos for a soccer stadium.

With all this, a clearer picture is starting to come into focus. When Ledecky and partner Scott Malkin bought the team from Charles Wang earlier this year, they inherited Wang’s lease on the Barclays Center, which he had agreed to despite the building’s problems for hockey — it was deliberately “value engineered” to be too small for the sport, in order to save on construction costs — because he was sick and tired of fighting with Nassau County officials over a new arena there. They also, however, inherited the opt-out clause that Wang had negotiated to allow the Islanders to break their lease in 2019 — and that’s the kind of leverage that you’d have to be crazy as an owner not to try to use.

So is an arena next to the Mets stadium feasible, and what would it take to build one? The parking lot to the west of Citi Field is already designated for the giant “Willets West” mall, but that’s currently held up in court because the lots are technically still city parkland. Could the Mets try to build an arena instead if the mall is nixed? Would the courts allow that more readily? Who knows?

Then there’s Willets Point proper, to the east of the Mets stadium, a melange of auto repair businesses that the city has been working to seize and evict for years to make way for a mixed housing and commercial development. Could the city agree to incorporate an arena as well? And on either site, would it provide the land for free, and leave it exempt from property taxes, which might be enough to entice the Mets and Isles owners to actually build this thing? And if they did, could it possibly be successful in a metropolitan area already glutted with arenas (Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, the New Jersey Devils‘ Prudential Center in Newark, plus soon the redone Nassau Coliseum) and only so many concerts to go around?

Of course, Ledecky and Malkin may never have to determine if a Queens (or Elmont) arena project is feasible, if they can use the mere possibility as a hammer to get Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to redo Barclays for hockey. The Isles owners haven’t come out and said what “improvements” they want, but to make a genuinely NHL-scaled space you’d need to knock down the entire west end of the structure and build it out another 50 feet or so, which wouldn’t be cheap, and would also entail shutting the arena for an offseason or two and losing out on revenue from those dates. So to get it done would require quite a formidable threat, and “we’re going to take our puck and go to Queens” might be the kind of thing that gets the attention of their current landlords.

Either way, though, it looks like we have a war on, one that’s likely to drag out for months or years as the various combatants (Ledecky and Malkin, Prokhorov, the Wilpons, the city, maybe Elmont) jockey for position and remake alliances. That should at least help tide everyone over until the final season of Game of Thrones.

Warriors arena in SF clears legal challenge, may actually get built someday

The seemingly never-ending battle over the Golden State Warriors‘ proposed new arena in San Francisco got at least one resolution yesterday, as San Francisco Superior Court Judge Garrett Wong ruled that the environmental impact statement that the San Francisco city council approved last winter was in fact conducted properly:

In a statement, team President Rick Welts said the ruling “brings us a huge step closer to building a new state-of-the-art sports and entertainment venue, which will add needed vitality to the Mission Bay neighborhood and serve the entire Bay Area extremely well.”

“We look forward to breaking ground soon,” he said…

Osha Meserve, a land-use attorney representing the [Mission Bay Alliance], said she is “disappointed on behalf of our co-plaintiffs and the people of San Francisco.” She said that the judge was under “extreme time pressure to make a ruling.”

This whole business of challenging environmental impact statements in court has become pretty de rigueur these days, especially in California, since it’s just about the only legal hook that opponents have for challenging land use decisions: You can’t overrule the city council on the grounds that a project is dumb or against the will of the people, but you can if you can find that the traffic analysis didn’t take something into account. It doesn’t often work, and in this case it didn’t, but it’s worth a shot.

This still doesn’t completely clear the path for the construction of the new Warriors’ arena — which, as a reminder, will be built entirely with private money and even pay property taxes, because that’s just how much moolah is available from San Francisco big spenders — as opponents could still choose to appeal yesterday’s ruling, and there’s still a separate lawsuit charging that the UC-San Francisco chancellor didn’t have the authority to agree to set up a $10 million traffic mitigation fund to ease problems during Warriors games. At this point, it’s extremely likely that the arena will get built eventually and the Warriors will move across the bay, but I wouldn’t be totally shocked if it didn’t happen by the September 2019 target date, because lawyers.

Ballmer: Seattle not getting NBA team anytime soon, probably not arena either

Steve Ballmer, who owns the Los Angeles Clippers but is from Seattle and was possibly going to be part of an ownership group for a new team there before buying the Clippers, says don’t hold your breath for Seattle getting an expansion team, at least in the next year or two:

“It’s just not likely to happen,” Ballmer told those attending the conference. “There has been no discussion about expansion since I have been involved with the league. So, I don’t think that will happen. The league has really moved to favor teams staying in their current markets. You’d have to find a team that’s at the end of their (arena) lease, where it looks hard to build an arena and where they’ve tried really hard to build an arena.”

The next year or two is an eyeblink in league expansion time, so that’s really no surprise. Why it’s significant is that the city’s memorandum of understanding with Chris Hansen expires in November 2017, so even if the Seattle council works out its qualms over closing a street to make way for the arena, there may not be an NBA team to build one for, which is required as part of the deal.

Hansen’s best chance of building an arena, said Ballmer, is to find an NHL team to bring to town — something that would take some fast footwork, since Hansen doesn’t have a team owner lined up, and the NHL just announced expansion that didn’t include Seattle, and there’s at least a $100 million funding gap if Hansen brings hockey to town instead of basketball, and also Hansen doesn’t really like hockey. Verdict: mostly dead.

Virginia Beach approves new financing deal for arena, local media still don’t understand it

The Virginia Beach city council has okayed the new bank that will provide the loan for the city’s $200 million arena, and that’s not really very interesting to anyone except maybe financial industry geeks. What I’m more curious about is: This time, did the Virginia Beach media manage to correctly describe the financial setup, where the developers will borrow the money and then the city will repay it with tax revenue? Virginian-Pilot, whatcha got?

Under the framework of the new preliminary deal, B.C. Ziegler would finance $200 million, or the guaranteed maximum cost to design and build the arena – whichever is less.

The complex would be privately financed, with the city covering the cost of the land and $76.5 million in infrastructure upgrades through a tax on arena event tickets and hotel stays.

Close! The $76.5 million in infrastructure and land spending is correct, but the city will also kick back $8.5 million a year in property taxes, business license taxes, admissions taxes, arena meals taxes, construction sales taxes, arena sales taxes, and hotel taxes, which will pay off most of that $200 million in bonds.

How about WAVY-TV?

When the project was first approved, it looked as if a bank in China would help finance it. Now, a Chicago financial institution, B.C. Ziegler and Company, will be financing the $200 million in bonds to build the arena.
U.S. Management will put up another $10 million for the project.

Complete fail! Though at least WAVY says “finance” the arena instead of “fund” it, if any readers/viewers are savvy enough to catch that distinction.

One day, a Virginia Beach news outlet will actually explain who’s paying for the city’s new arena — here’s a link to the city council’s own summary of the funding plan, so any future journalists can have an easy citation. (Hint: It’s under “Consideration.”) Let’s hope someone manages it before it’s time to tear down this arena because it’s obsolete.

VA Beach arena gets new bank, news outlets forget to note public still paying off the loans

I wasn’t going to post anything about the latest Virginia Beach arena news, which involves the developers taking out their construction loan from a U.S. bank instead of a Chinese bank, but then I saw this headline:

VA Beach Arena to be funded by U.S. bank

Yeah, just no. The arena isn’t going to be funded by the bank; it’s going to be financed by the bank. The actual funds going to pay off the arena loans will come from a mega-TIF tax kickback of all property taxes, business license taxes, admissions taxes, arena meals taxes, construction sales taxes, the city’s share of arena sales taxes, and the top 1% off of the city’s 8% hotel tax, which will leave city taxpayers providing about $206 million toward an arena that will only cost $200 million to build. Sorry to be pedantic about the word choice, but it’s kind of a big omission when your headline gets entirely wrong who’s paying for your city’s new arena, you know?

Could Hansen seek a Seattle NHL team now that Vegas has one? Sure, but don’t hold your breath

Speaking of getting an NHL team by waving a $500 million check around, our old friend Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times suggests that Chris Hansen might want to do just that if he ever wants to get a Seattle arena built:

For now, with the NBA not expanding and the NHL needing another Western team to balance conferences, it might be worth giving that “NHL first” option another look.

Las Vegas built its arena with private funds, resulting in limited political delays. Of course, an all-private venture for a $500 million arena in Sodo would be tougher without public-bond money.

Yeah, it sure would be tougher: The finances of an NBA arena in Seattle looked difficult enough under Hansen’s original plan, and it would only be tougher with a hockey team (which is projected to bring in less money) plus paying off $200 million that was supposed to be covered by city bonds — though about half those bonds were going to be paid off by Hansen’s rent payments anyway, so presumably he could just replace those with plain old bank loans. Yes, an NHL franchise would probably be cheaper than an NBA one at this point, but you’d also end up with a less valuable asset for your money, so really the concern here is whether Hansen could turn an operating profit on an NHL arena after paying off construction costs — I’m guessing no, but if he wants to give it a shot, more power to him.

Of course, that’s the other thing: Hansen, like Fannee Doolee, loves basketball but doesn’t think much of hockey, so he might not be willing to risk his money just to become an NHL owner. Baker’s theory is that at least it’ll let him build an arena, maybe, so that down the road he can get an NBA team, maybe, which … sure, maybe. I don’t really expect to see Hansen jumping at this option, but stranger things have happened.

Utah official apologizes for “rookie mistake” of voting on Jazz subsidy without public debate

Salt Lake City’s $22.7 million tax break for renovations to the Utah Jazz‘s privately owned arena is all over but the shouting, and there’s plenty of that:

  • Deseret News sports columnist Brad Rock writes that “the tradition of coercing cities into building sports arenas at public expense, under threat of relocation, is tried and true,” but then adds that he’s fine with being threatened if the price is right: “If Utah loses the Jazz, for lack of an updated arena, Salt Lake will return to the college town it was when the team arrived.” Not that the Jazz have threatened to leave town, mind you, or that it would make any sense for them to do so when they’d be abandoning an arena they themselves own, or even that this deal does anything to stop them from threatening to leave again later. But, you know, cold Omaha.
  • Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency chair Lisa Adams says it was a “rookie mistake” to schedule the arena subsidy vote only one day in advance, and that if she had it to do over again she’d give a month of lead time so people could actually discuss the plan first. Not that she’s offering to go back and change her vote now, but, you know, next time.

Once again, $22.7 million isn’t a huge subsidy for the year 2016, but on the other hand Salt Lake got exactly zero in exchange: no added arena revenues, no signed commitment to stay in Utah for a longer term, just 60% of the additional property tax revenues from the increased value of the arena — where if they hadn’t approved the subsidy, they’d be getting 100% of those. If this is the last time the Jazz ask for public money for the next couple of decades, it’s at least a fairly modest sum; if it turns out to be the camel’s nose, that’ll be a different story.