MARIETTA, Ga. – Commissioners of a suburban Atlanta county on Tuesday approved a deal to build a new $672 million stadium for the Atlanta Braves that would move the Major League Baseball team out of downtown Atlanta.
The Cobb County Commission voted 4-1 to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the baseball team following more than an hour of public comment both for and against the deal, which will require millions of dollars in public funds. Under the plan, the new stadium would open in 2017. The project is set to take the team out of downtown Atlanta for the first time since it moved to the city from Milwaukee in 1966.
Commissioners have been holding town hall meetings to gather feedback on the proposal and held an extended public comment period of about an hour at their meeting Tuesday night. They voted in favor of the deal despite calls by a diverse coalition of citizen groups for more time.
Four of the five commissioners, including commission Chair Tim Lee, said they'd had extensive talks with the Braves and felt that they had enough information to believe this would be a positive development.
Commissioner Lisa Cupid was the lone dissenting vote. Cupid said she supports the Braves moving to Cobb County, but thinks the process moved too quickly and that she still has some lingering concerns.
"I cannot in good conscience vote for the MOU, but I do support the Braves being in Cobb County," she said just before the vote.
"This is a most significant and historic day for our franchise," said Braves President John Schuerholz after the vote. "We're thrilled with how this turned out tonight."
Mike Plant, the Braves executive vice president of business operations, said the deal couldn't wait any longer if the stadium and entertainment complex are to be completed in time for the 2017 season.
"We got to one finish line tonight. We have a new starting line tomorrow," he said.
The Braves stunned local leaders and fans just over two weeks ago when they announced their plans to move to the suburban site about 10 miles north of downtown Atlanta. But Braves executives and Cobb commissioners said the planning had been underway for several months and nothing about it was rushed or hasty.
The 30-year agreement calls for a mix of reallocating existing property tax revenue and implementing new taxes on business and tourism to pay for the new stadium at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285. 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.
Members of the public who addressed the commissioners during the public comment period offered mixed opinions. Many supporters of the stadium talked about the positive economic benefit they believe it will have, saying the stadium would bring in revenue and attract business to the county. While some speakers on the other side spoke out against the stadium under any circumstance, more of them said they simply wanted a delay because they thought the process seemed rushed and lacked transparency.
The stadium supporters at the commission meeting were easy to spot as many held professionally printed signs or waved foam tomahawks that have long been a staple at Braves games and wore T-shirts that said "Cobb Home of the Braves."
"A foundation has been laid for our future success," said Ben Mathis, Cobb resident and incoming chair of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce.
Mathis said the stadium is the perfect type of project for a public-private partnership because everyone stands to benefit. He also said it the kind of development that draws young people and new energy to a county.
Cobb business owner and resident John Loud urge the commission to vote right away to cement the deal because Fulton County is "just waiting to watch us stumble."
The vote came amid calls by a diverse coalition of citizen groups for more time. Leaders of the Atlanta Tea Party, Common Cause of Georgia and the Sierra Club, among others, had asked for a 60-day delay, saying voters in the suburban county haven't had enough time to consider details of the project.
"I've been very disappointed in the veil of secrecy and the rush" to vote on the deal, Cobb resident Kevin Daniels said. "It's not characteristic of the government I've grown accustomed to having here in Cobb County."
Terry Taylor, with Common Cause Georgia, said he isn't necessarily opposed to having the stadium in Cobb County or even to using public funds. But he said the vote was very rushed and called for a public referendum.
"The scope and scale of this project demands that there be public participation," he said.
The memorandum of understanding between the county, the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum Exhibit Hall Authority and the Braves that was voted on by the commission calls for $300 million in upfront taxpayer support for the stadium. The payment would come from existing property taxes that now pay off debt for park projects and 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 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.