The deal in which the Cobb County, Georgia County Commission approved what the county says is its $300 million contribution to the proposed $672 million new stadium for Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves by a a 4 to 1 margin on November 26 moved at a breathtaking pace.
The first inkling the public had that such a deal was even in the works did not come until November 11, a mere 15 days before the County Commission voted its approval, when the Braves and Cobb County made the shocking announcement.
Despite four hurriedly organized town halls held in Cobb County during these 15 days, grassroots opposition to the “public-private partnership”, though not sufficient to change the outcome of the November 26 vote, remains strong.
Fox DC reported that at the first town hall, “[f]or the first 45 minutes, the open microphone at the town hall meeting was dominated by opponents of the new stadium. They raised concerns about a variety of issues including increased taxes, building an entertainment complex on the backs of poor minority students, traffic congestion and government partnering with a private organization — the Braves. . . For many there are too many unanswered questions to rush the project forward.”
But for Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, a 15-day public comment process was more than enough to establish the popularity of the proposed stadium. “The public has been voicing their opinion for the last two weeks,” he said just prior to the November 26 commission vote, “and pretty much…the tide is turning to a very positive support.”
While Cobb County’s Commissioners seemed quite pleased with their proposal, a local grassroots coalition organized in part by Debbie Dooley of the Atlanta Tea Party, which has a chapter in Cobb County, reacted negatively to the rushed nature of the approval.
Dooley, who is highly skeptical that the cost to the county will remain below the $300 million the Cobb County Commission claims, told the Associated Press “[t]he government is not supposed to pick winners and losers…This [deal] is anything but free-market.”
Activists point out that the Memorandum of Understanding between Cobb County and the Braves has many unanswered questions. While they plan on submitting a detailed list of those questions to the Cobb County Commission, the lightly financed and loosely organized grassroots coalition that has publicly opposed the deal has few realistic options to resist the well-financed public relations full-court press being organized by the Braves and Cobb County.
One option is to organize a recall of the four county commissioners who voted for the deal, but that is a financial and organizational long shot. This is particularly true because there is a great deal of popular support within the local business community and among Cobb County sports fans on behalf of the deal.
The five commissioners are elected to four year terms on a staggered basis. Two members are up for re-election in 2014 and three, including Commission Chairman Lee, who was narrowly re-elected in 2012, are up for re-election in 2016. But even if all four commissioners who voted for the deal were defeated by long shot and under financed challengers, the stadium deal would likely be too far along to be reversed by a newly constituted Cobb County Commission.
A third option would be to mount a legal challenge. This is the avenue in which local opponents of the stadium deal might have the greatest success, especially given the very brief 15-day period of public review prior to the Cobb County Commission’s favorable vote on November 26. Financing such a challenge might not be an insurmountable hurdle if any one of a number of public interest law organizations decided to take on the case to test the boundaries of sports crony capitalism at the local level.
The Atlanta Braves have played since 1997 at Turner Field, which was originally built in downtown Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games and was retrofitted specifically to house the team. The stadium is owned by The City of Atlanta and Fulton County Recreation Authority, with whom the Braves signed a 20-year lease in 1997. That lease expires at the end of the 2016 season. The Braves are looking to open the new proposed Cobb County stadium in time for the 2017 season.
At the time they moved into Turner Field, the Braves were owned by Time-Warner. The team is now owned by media giant Liberty Media, which owns part of Charter Communications, as well as 100% of Sirius XM Radio. Cable television titan John C. Malone, whose estimated net worth exceeds $6 billion, owns the majority of the voting stock in Liberty Media.
According to Braves management, it did not make business sense for the team to renew its Turner Field lease. “Turner Field needs $150 million in infrastructure work to do things like replacing seats, repairing and upgrading lighting– but none of which would significantly enhance the experience for fans.”
The city of Atlanta never seriously proposed a plan to finance a new stadium, but behind the scenes the Cobb County Commission members aggressively set forth their proposal to give the Braves a new home. Fox Atlanta reported the details of the proposal in which the new stadium “will be owned by the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority, which now owns the Cobb Galleria Centre and Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The Braves will handle the day-to-day oversight of the stadium.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has reacted negatively to the public desertion of Turner Field and the city of Atlanta by the Braves. Fox Atlanta reported that “[t]eam officials say they met with Mayor Kasim Reed [four days before the public announcement] to deliver the news of their decision, and they added that Reed was ‘not pleased.’ “
In an interview the day after the Braves announcement, Reed sounded very much like a political leader who supports the limited government values of the Tea Party movement. In explaining the reasons why the city of Atlanta chose not to get into a bidding war with Cobb County over the Braves, Reed said “[w]e wanted the Braves to stay in Atlanta, but (there was a) business problem that we had to solve. . . That choice was encumbering between $150 million and $250 million in debt and not having money to do anything else.”
According to CNN, “[t]he city of Atlanta wasn’t asked to put up that much money, nor was it asked to build a new stadium, the mayor said. Still, the Braves did ask for extensive public investments in the publicly owned stadium and the surrounding area, money that Reed said he didn’t feel the city could give now, given other needs and the desire to keep spending and debt in check.”
The city of Atlanta has, however, ponied up $200 million for a new stadium downtown for the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL, and Reed supports those expenditures. However, he told CNN, “I certainly was not going to try to finance two stadium deals at the exact same time.”
In what some saw as a dig at the more Republican residents of Cobb County, Reed added that “$450 million [here Reed uses a much higher figure than Cobb County’s $300 million] in public financing is a pretty good deal . . . We can’t spend money that liberally in the city of Atlanta. We are fiscal conservatives here.”
Ted Turner, the billionaire founder of CNN and former owner of the Braves after whom Turner Field was named, was surprised by his former team’s move. “I’ve been so shocked by them moving the Braves out of Atlanta,” he told the Associated Press. “I just learned the last couple of days that they intend to tear the stadium down . . . I thought maybe they’d find, yet, a woman’s soccer team or something like that. … But the idea of turning it into a green-space park would be wonderful.”
Mayor Reed has other ideas. He wants to turn the area into a shopping development.
The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966, and played their first 31 years in Atlanta at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which opened in 1965 and was owned by the same City of Atlanta and Fulton County Recreation Authority that now owns Turner Field, and was built at a cost of $18 million. Until 1991, the stadium was also home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Originally organized as the Boston Red Stockings in 1871, the team was subsequently known as the Beaneaters, the Rustlers, the Bees, and the Doves until it settled on the Braves in 1912. In 1954 the team moved to Milwaukee, where it stayed for a dozen years until moving to Atlanta.