The Braves and New Stadium Financing

Monday morning brought the startling news that the Atlanta Braves will be leaving Turner Field in downtown Atlanta at the end of the 2016 season for a new ballpark in neighboring Cobb County. The ballpark will be just 20 years old when the Braves depart. It opened in 1997, after the city of Atlanta converted its Olympic Stadium into what was then a state-of-the-art ballpark. But according to the Braves, Turner Field is in need of $150 million in renovations and upgrades, on top of the $125 million the Braves have spent on improvements to date. Even then, says the team, the ballpark would still sit in an area of downtown Atlanta that is not easily accessible by public transportation and that is surrounded by parking lots and little other economic development, which hampers the fan experience.

Instead, the Braves will reportedly invest that money and more into a new ballpark in unincorporated Cobb County, about 14 miles northwest of Turner Field.  The team purchased 60 acres near the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285 and plans to develop not just a new ballpark, but mixed-use properties (residential and commercial), parking lots, and open/green space.  Here’s a map showing where Turner Field is located (A) and where the new ballpark will be built (B).

Turner Field to Cumberland Mall   Google Maps

The Braves released their own map on Monday morning, showing where their 2012 ticketbuyers lived. Not surprisingly, there’s a large contingent of Braves fans who live north of the city. Presumably, these fans will have easier access to the new ballpark.

Bravesticketsmap

Or will they? While the Braves justified the move out of the city based in part on the lack of mass transit options near Turner Field, they said nothing about the mass transit now available or planned near the new ballpark site. Indeed, the Braves provided very little detailed information. Mark Bowman of MLB.com reported:

Although specific financial details were not revealed, the Braves said they are “putting a significant financial investment” into the construction of the stadium, which will cost approximately $672 million and include somewhere in the neighborhood of 41,000 seats.

Cobb County will also be investing in the cost of the stadium and its surroundings, as well as proposed transportation enhancements. Details of the public funding have not been released.

The Braves released no drawings or schematics of the proposed new ballpark but they know that it will cost $672 million? Or is that just a target figure agreed to by the team and Cobb County officials? Perhaps it’s the latter, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Braves will be on the hook for costs above the $672 million figure. AJC also reported the Braves would invest $200 million upfront with $450 million “in financing” from Cobb County. On Monday, Cobb County officials had little to say on that matter. The Braves flatly denied the $450 million figure.

By Tuesday, Neil deMause, author of the excellent Field of Schemes blog and a book by the same name, was asking very good questions about exactly where the financing would come from and whether the new site would provide better transportation options, even if Braves fans are concentrated north of downtown Atlanta.

Also on Tuesday, Franklin Rabon of the Braves blog Talking Chop tracked down comments from a Cobb County Commissioner to the Marietta Daily Journal, suggesting that the Cumberland Community Improvement District — a self-taxing district that raises money from local businesses for infrastructure improvements — would be on the hook for the public financing and that “99 percent of county taxpayers should not see any tax increase related to the stadium project.”  Rabon also noted that the Cobb County Republicans, who control all levers of local government, aren’t terribly keen about any kind of taxes, and have specifically rejected the idea of extending MARTA trains (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) from the city north and west toward the new ballpark site.

So many questions and very few answers.

Here’s one thing we do know: the city of Atlanta did not agree to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars in order to keep the Braves at Turner Field or in another downtown location. Indeed, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told reporters that the city is fiscally conservative and couldn’t afford a new ballpark like “liberal Cobb County.” It’s a friendly dig, given city’s Democratic politics compared to the much more conservative Cobb County, but an interesting point nonetheless. Atlanta faced the prospect of losing a professional franchise and said, “Okay.” That doesn’t happen every day.

Of course, Atlanta is on the hook for at least $200 million for a new stadium for the NFL’s Falcons, also set to open in 2017. There, too, the new facilities will replace one — the Georgia Dome — that less than 25 years old. So no gold stars for Atlanta from those opposed to publicly-financed sports arenas.

For now, we’ll have to wait for more details on who will pay for what on the new Braves ballpark. And when the details emerge, we’ll have to look very closely, because these public-private partnerships often don’t turn out very well for the public. In a book published last year, Harvard University urban planning professor Judith Grant Long found that, for all stadiums in use in 2010 by professional sports team, public funds accounted for 78% of total costs, while the teams, on average, paid for only 22% of the total. Those figures are across all sports, including the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS.

Even before her book was published, Long examined the public and private costs associated with the 31 NFL stadiums in use in 2010 and provided a breakdown to the New York Times. Here’s the chart the Times created with Long’s analysis:

The N.F.L. Plays  the Public Pays   Graphic   NYTimes.com

There will be plenty more to say about the Braves’ new ballpark plans as more information is made public. We will have our eye on the financing and transportation issues, in particular. For his part, Commissioner Selig appears satisfied with what is known now. He issued the following statement on Monday:

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 in Atlanta for the 2017 season, and we look forward to their continued excellence representing their community, both on and off the field.

No word from the A’s or Rays on Selig’s statement.

 



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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


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