In the days after the Atlanta Braves announced their intention to make a 13-mile, taxpayer-assisted relocation to suburban Cobb County, residents there flooded Cobb officials with 142 pages of angry e-mails, almost seven times as many as the county received in support.
Tea Party supporters clogged county telephone lines with calls complaining about at least $368 million in tax-supported bonds Cobb has pledged to back a $672 million new Braves stadium. Opponents last week filed a lawsuit in county court challenging the legality of the funding plan.
The Tea Party, which favors smaller government and less regulation, is taking on the Republican business establishment and aligning with environmental, education and transportation activists, showing that distaste for publicly-funded stadiums can unify political enemies.
“We’re all for capitalism,” Atlanta Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley said. “We’re against crony capitalism like this.”
Dooley said her group considers the stadium deal a waste of taxpayer money and corporate welfare awarded without adequate public input.
Building or renovating the 30 Major League Baseball parks cost taxpayers $9.7 billion as of 2010, according to Judith Grant Long, a professor of urban planning at Harvard University. Subsidies are often advocated as a route to economic development, yet the results aren’t guaranteed.
A Ramapo, New York, a minor-league stadium funded by taxpayers instead of team owners failed to deliver benefits. In Atlanta, the current Braves stadium stands isolated among acres of parking lots bordered by derelict neighborhoods.
Popular resistance is emerging: In Sacramento, California, a lawsuit and campaigns by two citizen groups targeted a $258 million subsidy for a downtown basketball arena. And Cobb County, a Republican bastion that holds itself up as the frugal alternative to Democrat-controlled Atlanta, has become the target of its own anti-tax rhetoric, said Scott Beaulier, an economics professor at Troy University in Alabama.
“Cobb County is one of the most red parts of Georgia,” Beaulier said in a phone interview. “It’s affluent Republicans. I guess even the most conservative lawmakers suddenly love big government when a stadium comes along.”
Tim Lee, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners and a Republican who ran on lower taxes, helped lead the deal-making. He said he expects the controversy will continue, given the scope of the project. He also said the new stadium has many supporters who believe it will benefit the county, bringing significant economic development over time.
Lee said the Braves deal isn’t like those that failed to deliver stadium-linked economic riches in other cities. The Braves will be doing the development, not waiting for it, he said. The company has promised a $400 million adjacent project with hotels, retail, restaurants, office space and residences, Lee said.
“A lot of folks in other markets, they use the stadium as a catalyst for development and then wait for it to show up,” Lee said. “It’s like building a roller coaster and hoping a Ferris wheel will come. We’re not doing that.”
Cobb taxpayers will pay $17.9 million annually to service the stadium bonds, according to county estimates. The money will come from an existing tax on property owners and new taxes on tourists.
The Braves, owned by John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp. (LMCA:US), said on its website that the new baseball stadium, scheduled to open in 2017, will support more than 5,200 workers including construction jobs and generate $235 million in employee earnings.
The battle over the Braves began more than 18 months ago, when Atlanta officials started negotiations with the team over redeveloping the impoverished area around the existing stadium, Turner Field, on the city’s South side, in advance of the 2016 expiration of the team’s lease.
The possibility that the Braves would relocate “was always on the table,” said Hans Utz, Atlanta’s deputy chief operating officer.
The Braves negotiators presented a final wish-list in September, including new transit infrastructure, capital improvements and at least $10 million a year in guaranteed revenue from redeveloped land around the ballpark. The city estimated that it would cost at least $200 million in new public revenue, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in an interview.
By then, the team had already been meeting with Cobb County officials for three months.
Reed said he learned the Braves were headed to a new site the day after his November re-election. What had started as a triumphant week became “the worst political week of my career,” he said. “I made it clear that I was not willing to pay anywhere near that amount and that I wasn’t going to counter.”
Suddenly, Atlanta was the fiscal conservative, outbid by a generous Cobb, a reversal of reputation Reed emphasized in a press conference after the move was announced.
The city’s recent $200 million pledge of hotel and motel tax money for a new Atlanta Falcons football stadium was different, Reed said in an interview.
The hotel tax, which the legislature tied to the Falcons and their home, contributes $8 million to $10 million to the city general fund annually, while the Braves stadium produces no revenue for Atlanta, Reed said.
A bond issue in 2014 for infrastructure projects also could be compromised by the Braves’ demands, Reed said. “I wasn’t going to do that to prevent them from moving 12 or 13 miles up the interstate,” Reed said.
In Cobb, residents were also shocked.
Some were thrilled, according to the e-mails received by county officials in the first days after the announcement. The messages were made public under an open records request by former Cobb resident Kevin Schmidt, an analyst with Washington-based government transparency group Cause of Action.
“What a coup for Cobb ... and you,” wrote Brandt Blocker, the general manager of the Atlanta Lyric Theatre in Marietta, Cobb’s county seat, to commission chairman Lee. “Congratulations!”
Another approvingly called it the best-kept secret since the development of the atomic bomb.
The more numerous opponents criticized Cobb County for that secrecy, for moving too fast, for pledging millions to the Braves when the county schools have an $80 million budget deficit, for aggravating clogged traffic near the site and for not acting like Republicans.
“We made the decision to move to southeast Cobb because we thought Cobb had responsible, fiscally conservative government and surely would not do the stupid, taxpayer-robbing things that City of Atlanta routinely does,” wrote Paul Davis.
As the Cobb commission readied for a first public vote on the deal, a poll by Washington-based Lincoln Park Strategies found 81 percent of respondents, most of them Republicans, believed the county was moving too fast. The poll, which was worded to tease out resistance to the Braves deal, was commissioned by an unidentified regional economic developer looking for a strategy to fight the deal over the next two years, according to consultant Rick Dent, a Democrat.
Four of five commissioners voted to move forward with the stadium deal two days before the Thanksgiving holiday, with the commission’s lone Democrat casting the only “no” vote.
Tea Party leader Dooley was astounded, she said.
“The lone dissenting vote was the Democrat, and she all of a sudden became a conservative Tea Party champion,” Dooley said. “She said all the things Republicans normally would.”
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