November 26, 2013

Citizens’ group asks to delay Braves stadium plan

By BILL BARROW, Associated Press

MARIETTA — A coalition of wide-ranging citizens groups has asked Cobb County officials to delay a decision on spending hundreds of millions of public dollars to build a stadium for Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee says the vote is still scheduled to proceed Tuesday as planned.

Leaders of the Atlanta Tea Party, Common Cause of Georgia and the Sierra Club, among others, asked for a 60-day delay, saying voters in the suburban county haven’t had enough time to consider details of the estimated $672 million project that would take the team out of downtown for the first time since it moved from Milwaukee in 1966.

Lee unveiled the framework of Cobb’s commitment — which starts with an initial $300 million outlay — over the past two weeks, after he’d already worked out the draft memorandum of understanding in private with Braves executives.

“This is a home run for Cobb County,” Lee told a packed public forum in Marietta, after activists outside demanded a delay. Postponing a vote, Lee and his colleagues insisted, would threaten the deal.

Cobb officials promise a new, publicly owned stadium will open for the 2017 season at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285, northwest of downtown. The team’s current lease at Turner Field, which is jointly owned by Fulton County and the city of Atlanta, runs through the 2016 season.

Lee was cheered at one of several public forums around the county Monday evening by supporters wearing T-shirts that declared “Cobb — Home of the Braves.” Before one contentious session, dozens waved the foam tomahawks that have been a staple at Braves games since the early 1990s.

But opponents were just as vocal. One sign dismissed public spending on a private baseball franchise as “Crapitalism at its finest.” Another sign said: “No Tomahawk Tax.”

Lee insisted that economic activity from the team and the team’s promised $400 million development around the Cobb stadium will more than cover the cost.

But Sue Stanton, one of the conservative activists calling for a delay, said if that’s the case, commissioners should wait until the details have been more thoroughly vetted in public. “Any legislation that cannot stand sunlight does not deserve to be passed,” Stanton said.

A draft memorandum of understanding between Cobb and the Braves calls for $300 million in upfront taxpayer support for the stadium. The county would cover that with revenue from bonds, with annual debt payment of $17.9 million over 30 years. That comes to $537 million.

The payment would come from $8.67 million in existing property taxes that now pay off debt for park projects. The rest would from lodging taxes, a rental car tax and levies on business in a special commercial district around the stadium site.

The Braves’ initial contribution to the project would be $280 million. The remaining $92 million would come from debt that the county assigns to the team, bringing the Braves’ share to $372 million, or 55 percent of the total.

The $92 million would be paid with annual debt payments of $6.1 million, to be covered partly by the team’s $3 million annual rent payment to the county and $1.5 million in money from a corporate sponsor that buys naming rights for the stadium. Parking revenue also would help cover the debt, though it’s not clear from the county’s outline whether that would come from property owned by the team, the public or some other entity surrounding the stadium.

The Braves have promised to cover construction cost overruns. But the team also reserves the right to reduce the total cost of the project by $50 million, absorbing all the savings without reducing the public contribution.

The total $672 million construction estimate does not include maintenance and capital improvements at the stadium, which the team and the county would share over the 30-year agreement. Neither party has released detailed numbers for those costs.


Follow Barrow on Twitter @BillBarrowAP.