SBD/November 12, 2013/Facilities

Braves' Secretive Plans With Cobb County Leave Atlanta Officials "Stunned"

Attendance at Turner Field has suffered due to downtown Atlanta traffic
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that when city officials learned late last week of the Braves' plans to relocate to Cobb County, they were "still weighing a 16-point proposal the team submitted in September at the city’s behest," according to Katie Leslie of the ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. Reed yesterday said, "We didn't let the Braves walk. They came to us with a deal in late September that we were in the midst of vetting." Atlanta Deputy COO Hans Utz "primarily managed talks with the Braves on behalf of the city," and he "rebuffed reported complaints city officials failed to respond to that proposal." The city "believed it had until mid-November to respond to the latest request," and was "stunned last week when the Braves notified them of their decision." Utz said, "We were operating under the good faith assumption they wanted $100 million (and were) suddenly given 48 hours to respond to a $450 million deal." He added that talks over the redevelopment plans around Turner Field "stalled earlier this year because the Braves wanted to engage on both sides of the process -- outlining terms of the request for proposal yet also applying to win the bid -- a role city officials said then was a conflict of interest." Utz said that the city "cannot commit hotel-motel taxes to the project as those funds were authorized by the state solely for the future Falcons stadium." He added that Turner Field upgrades "would have to come from another source of city revenue, funds that otherwise would go to infrastructure problems such as sidewalk repair." Utz: "No one blames the Braves for liking the Cobb County deal. ... But they surprised us by dropping it in our laps at this last second. I’m not sure what else we could have done" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 11/12). In Atlanta, Maria Saporta writes under the header, "What The Atlanta Braves Wanted To Stay At Turner Field" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/12).

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: In Georgia, Hohmann & Wiley note the decision to leave Turner Field "was made in quiet conversations" between Cobb County Chair Tim Lee and Braves execs. Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott said he only found out about the negotiations "about a week ago" (MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL, 11/12). Cobb Chamber of Commerce VP/Economic Development Brooks Mathis said, "I was the only one involved, to keep it very confidential. We met quite frequently. It really didn't differ from other projects as far as the path we took. But obviously it’s one of the largest projects we've worked on." Lee said the secrecy was important because "it was very clear, if any word leaked out the deal was off" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 11/12). Lee said that it was State Rep. Earl Ehrhart who "put him in touch" with Braves execs in a lunch that "ended up in a proposal to move." In Georgia, Jon Gillooly notes Ehrhart has "befriended a number of Braves executives through his involvement in developing Emerson-based LakePoint Sporting Community in Bartow County." Ehrhart: "It just came up in a conversation out here. They asked me if I could introduce them to those in Cobb County. They laid out some very clear metrics for me that most of the population of Braves' fans are right here in the Cobb County area. Then they showed me the $800 million or so of economic impact that it could have, I'm thinking, wow, this is a wonderful thing for Cobb County." Braves Exec VP/Business Operations Mike Plant said following that lunch, "Tim quickly ... got the Chamber's economic development organization involved, and they've been the lead organization that we've worked with in the last couple of months." Mathis said, "It was very important for them to still have an Atlanta address, which this site does have" (MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL, 11/12). The ATLANTA BUSINESS CHRONICLE's Saporta noted the project "has not gone through any of the government approvals that could be necessary to get public funding" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/11). Atlanta-based WXIA-NBC's Jeremy Campbell said the Braves' announcement was "totally out of left field," and "even the players just got word" yesterday morning (WXIA-NBC, 11/11).

NOT QUITE A DONE DEAL? Lee said that he "didn't know" where Reed "came up with information Cobb had offered $450 million in public support to the Braves." Lee: "I don't know where he got that number from, but I can neither confirm nor deny." The MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL's Gillooly notes the plan "must pass muster with the Cobb Board of Commissioners, which will have final say on the contract and is expected to take the matter up for a vote at its Nov. 26 meeting." The ballpark "would be owned by the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority." Naming rights for the venue are "expected to head to the market soon after the vote by commissioners." Lee said, "It's a public-private partnership that reflects the conservative nature of Cobb County in its execution and it's anticipated it will be considered a win-win for everyone involved." Braves President John Schuerholz said that team Owner Liberty Media is "fully on board with the move." Schuerholz: "Their response is that 'We like this, we give you the green light to go forward' and we have" (MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL, 11/12). The ATLANTA BUSINESS CHRONICLE's Saporta reported Reed yesterday seemed to be "exploring the possibility of an Atlanta response to the Cobb County deal." Reed in a text message "made a point of saying the Braves had not yet closed on the 60-acre Cobb County parcel" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/11). In Atlanta, Galloway & Bluestein wrote Commission-level approval "tells you something very important: No countywide referendum is involved, which means no new tax would be levied" (AJC.com, 11/11). The ATLANTA BUSINESS CHRONICLE's Douglas Sams writes financing the Braves' new ballpark with Cobb County tax dollars "will certainly face opposition" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/11).

CROSSTOWN TRAFFIC: MLB.com's Mark Bowman noted the Braves "evaluated ways to make improvements at Turner Field and surround it with the numerous entertainment options that will be available around the new stadium year-round, but those improvements would not have addressed the transportation issues." Heavy traffic in downtown Atlanta has "deterred some fans." Plant said that Turner Field is "about 5,000 parking spots short of the optimal figure when filled to capacity." Plant: "It's the No. 1 issue cited by our fans as to why they either don't come to games or come to as many games. It's difficult to get here and very difficult to get out of here. The parking situation is cumbersome and challenging." Schuerholz added, "What is unique about this project is (that) coming out of the ground at the same time as the stadium is the first phase of our mixed-use development, this great destination where people will be able to mitigate the traffic problems by going someplace early, where they can have a nice meal, shop or hang out with friends and family, and then stay there afterward if they like." The new ballpark would have "upwards of 30,000 parking spots that will be owned and operated by the Braves." Plant said, "We just got to a point where (we couldn't overcome) the challenges we have put on the table of identifying the large bucket of funding for infrastructure improvements, fan enhancements and access. They became insurmountable in our discussions." Meanwhile, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in a statement said, "The Braves have kept us apprised of their stadium situation throughout this process. Major League Baseball fully supports their decision to move to a new ballpark" (MLB.com, 11/11). Braves Exec VP/Sales & Marketing Derek Schiller said that the new ballpark "will have all the modern fan amenities, and the fewer seats will make it a more intimate fan experience" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/11).

IMPACT OF A BAD TV DEAL: SPORTS ON EARTH's Robert Weintraub wrote the team is "paying the price for locking itself into the league's worst local television contract, a deal signed in 2007 as the team was being sold by Time Warner to Liberty Media in the wake of the disastrous merger between TW and AOL." The Braves are "in desperate need of revenue enhancement." Local subway system MARTA has "tried to expand to this northwest region of the metropolitan area for decades, but has been batted away each time by local interests afraid of what mass transit might bring -- in a word, minorities, with easier access to their doorstep." Turner Field's public transport access "wasn't anything like Yankee Stadium, but it wasn't as bad as critics portrayed it, either" (SPORTSONEARTH.com, 11/11). FOXSPORTS.com's Ken Rosenthal writes the Braves' local TV deal "might be the worst in baseball, and it still has 13 years to run." Turner Field also was in a "problematic downtown location." Rosenthal: "Put it all together, and the team’s announced move to Cobb County makes perfect sense, even if Turner Field’s lifespan will end up consisting of only 20 years. If anything, the Braves' recent success under general manager Frank Wren is all the more remarkable, considering the obstacles that the team faces" (FOXSPORTS.com, 11/12). MLB Network's Ron Darling said of Turner Field, "They've always had trouble getting people in there. They have nothing around there. I think what they're doing (in) Cobb County is chasing the money, going to a place where there’s going to be a little richer environment" (“MLB Tonight,” MLB Network, 11/11).

BIG WIN FOR COBB COUNTY: Ott said that he "feels it's a good deal" for Cobb County, and that 99% of county taxpayers "should not expect to see any tax increase tied" to the project. Ott: "The businesses around there are going to be footing the bill." Neither execs nor commissioners yesterday would say "where the financing for the project would come from." Ott said that he was "already hearing from his constituents" yesterday. He said that his e-mail inbox "was flooded and his cellphone was lighting up." Ott: "I think the biggest concern people have is traffic. But there are $580 million of transportation projects coming on line in that area in the next 10 years. ... So there's some good plans out there to address those concerns" (MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL, 11/12). Lee said that transportation improvements "already underway or being planned in the vicinity ... will be adequate to handle game traffic." Lee added that the county also is "planning to begin a trolley line that would connect Cumberland-area businesses with the new stadium." In Atlanta, Dave Williams noted, "Most Braves fans, however, likely would use their cars to get to the new stadium." Lee "didn't dismiss rail or other big-ticket transportation improvements as a future possibility" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/11). In Georgia, John Bednarowski notes the 45 extra acres on the ballpark site will leave "plenty of space to help the new stadium flow into the Cumberland Mall and Galleria areas, where the shops, hotels and restaurants will likely see a significant jump in business." That is something the neighborhood around Turner Field "just could not accommodate" (MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL, 11/12).

ROCKIN' THE SUBURBS: SI.com's Jay Jaffe noted the move will make Turner Field "the first of the 24 major league ballparks to open since 1989 to be replaced, and buck the trend of teams returning to urban centers." The proposed ballpark is "in the suburbs and closer to the geographic center of the team’s ticket-buying fan base, a much higher percentage of which happens to be white." Instead of sinking $350M "into fixes to modernize Turner, the Braves are spending $200 million for a new park, with much of that cost likely to be covered by the development of the surrounding area and the sale of naming rights." Notably, Turner is "one of just eight venues that doesn’t have such a deal in place." While the announcement of the new ballpark is "good news for many suburban Braves fans, it’s unsettling for the industry as a whole." The A's and Rays "would take Turner Field as their home in a heartbeat if it could be shipped to them" (SI.com, 11/11).
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