Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Cobb County officials pushing for the taxpayer investment in a new Atlanta Braves stadium have said all along that it's a good deal, in large part because of the team's promise to build a $400 million development of restaurants, housing, retail and offices outside the ballpark.
But Braves officials balked when the county tried to get them to commit to a minimum investment and a date certain for the private development's completion, according to documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In fact, the private investment with its promise of jobs and tax revenues remains little more than a handshake deal in the stadium development contract --- one of several agreements related to the ballpark that Cobb Commissioners are expected to approve tonight.
Collectively, the documents spell out the obligations of all parties involved for the next 33 years, in both building, operating and paying for the stadium.
They commit at least $392 million of public money.
Braves executives last week reiterated their promise that a major portion of the mixed-use development will be finished in time for the ballpark's opening in 2017. The initial phase, constructed simultaneously with the stadium, would be 1 million square feet and cost about $300 million, team officials said. The rest will be completed by 2019, according to documents submitted this month to regional planning agencies.
When asked what obligates the team to that promise, Braves executive vice president Mike Plant acknowledged that there is nothing in writing. But, he said, the team has purchased 82 acres in the Cumberland Mall area while working for months with consultants who are experts in planning and shaping these types of entertainment districts.
Plant added that they are on schedule with all of the steps that state and county governments require of large-scale developments.
"They have our commitment," Plant said. "The county has seen us demonstrate, in every way, what it's going to take to have that development up and running by April 2017."
Tonight's vote culminates months of negotiations between county and team officials, which followed commission approval of a preliminary agreement in November.
The AJC reviewed more than 1,200 pages of documents detailing the back-and-forth of those negotiations. The lawyers often negotiated through the documents --- underlining text they wanted to add, striking through text they wanted to delete, with notes of explanation or context typed in the margins.
The county's financial commitment toward stadium construction is outlined in the Stadium Development Agreement. And the newspaper's review of that document turned up something unexpected: an opening for the county to spend beyond the $300 million limit that public officials have consistently claimed to be airtight.
The document defines the taxpayer contribution as revenue from sources that have been known for months: bonds, sales tax for transportation projects, and cash from businesses in the Cumberland area. But it also allows for "any other funds which may be made available for the Stadium Project."
Stricken from an early version of the contract was stronger language that said the county's contribution would "under no circumstances exceed" those amounts.
Cobb chairman Tim Lee declined to answer questions about the negotiations, but he said the county will not spend more than it committed to last fall. Lee said the contract struck language preventing additional public spending on the stadium so the county could go after other sources of funding, such as grants.
"It doesn't change our cap as we've stated all along," Lee said, referring to the original $300 million commitment.
Among the newspaper's other findings:
A multimillion-dollar pedestrian-transit bridge over I-285, deemed by the Braves as critical to the project, doesn't have a clear funding source. Also unclear is whether the bridge would add to the county's overall stadium project costs or be counted as part of its $300 million pledge. The AJC has previously reported that the bridge's future is uncertain.
The agreement calls for Cobb to assist the Braves in gaining "maximum available assistance" from local, state and federal governments. It also calls for the county to help the team obtain sales-tax exemptions for materials and equipment during stadium construction. The Braves told the AJC last week that they would not seek abatements for property tax on the mixed-use development.
Taxpayers will be responsible for any overrun during stadium construction that is caused by the county government, a point public officials have not emphasized previously.
Questions about the Braves' private investment come against the backdrop of other cities --- such as Cincinnati and St. Louis --- struggling to complete similar developments outside of their ballparks.
And in Gwinnett County, developer Brand Morgan said he would build the familiar mix of restaurants, offices and housing outside of the Braves' triple-A stadium, Coolray Field. He has managed to build only apartments since the ballpark opened in 2009.
Braves president John Schuerholz told a gathering of the Atlanta Press Club last week that the recession was to blame for the Gwinnett development never taking off. Schuerholz was then asked if the Braves would be immune to recession in Cobb County.
"My middle name is not Nostradamus," Schuerholz replied. "But we'll be able to withstand it far better than we could before."
Lisa Cupid, the only commissioner to vote against that preliminary agreement with the Braves last fall, said she would like to see a minimum investment required of the team in the private development because it is central to the county's projections for new jobs and increased tax revenue.
But the preliminary agreement "provided a weak framework for us to get that commitment" in the final contract, she said.
Other Cobb commissioners feel the contracts are drafted adequately to protect taxpayer interests and are true to the deal they approved last fall. They see no reason to vote against the agreements.
Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the Cumberland area, said he's convinced the Braves will follow through on their plans for a simple reason: "You don't spend that kind of money if you don't intend to build a development."
Asked why the team didn't agree in the contract to the minimum investment and time frame for delivering the mixed-use development, Plant said the agreement focuses on the ballpark, where the team and county are partners.
"The mixed-use development is not part of that partnership," he said.
Another unclear aspect of the private development is who will own it. Braves officials have been noncommittal in public about whether they will have equity in the project.
"I would just say we will --- we may," vice president of marketing Derek Schiller said. "We have every desire to do so, but I think the structure of that, because it's on the private side, I think we're going to leave that alone for now."
If you go
What: Cobb commission meeting
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: 100 Cherokee St., Marietta
On the agenda: Agreements with the Atlanta Braves, the Cumberland Community Improvement District, the Cobb-Marietta Exhibition Hall Authority, and a pledge to borrow up to $397 million for a new ballpark in the Cumberland Mall area. Commissioners also will approve hiring a construction manager to oversee the project.
How to speak: Twelve people, who register on a sign-in sheet, will be permitted to speak for 5 minutes each at the beginning of the meeting.
Stadium construction budget: $622 million
Public contribution: $392 million
- $397 million bond issuance*
- $14 million in transportation sales tax
- $10 million cash from businesses in the Cumberland Community Improvement District
*The maximum amount the county would borrow. The bond issuance is larger than the public contribution because the county is also borrowing money to pay the first 15 months of interest on the debt and all of the borrowing costs. The interest rate at the time of the issuance will determine the exact amount borrowed.
Braves' contribution: $230 million, which can be increased to $280 million at the team's discretion.
County's annual payment: $25 million**
**The maximum annual payment the county could make. The exact amount will depend on interest rates at the time of the bond issuance.
County annual revenue sources for bond payments
- Renewal of countywide property tax levy: $8.6 million
- Braves' rent: $6.1 million
- New property tax from Cumberland-area businesses: $5.1 million
- New nightly hotel room fee: $2.7 million
- Existing hotel-motel tax: $940,000
- New rental car tax in unincorporated Cobb: $400,000
How we got the story
Reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution have been digging into all aspects of the Atlanta Braves stadium proposal in Cobb County since the deal was announced last fall. We were the first to report on additional public safety costs and additional financing costs that will impact taxpayers over the life of the deal. For this story, we reviewed more than 1,200 pages of draft agreements between the county and the team as they approach tonight's critical vote to finalize many of the aspects that will govern the ballpark's construction and use. Late Friday, the county released bond documents, which the commission will be asked to ratify tonight, that allow borrowing of up to $397 million, and up to $25 million in annual repayment.