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Atlanta deal shows how expensive new baseball stadiums can be

A baseball team wants a new stadium — still within its metro area but closer to its fan base.

The Tampa Bay Rays, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County officials have gnawed over that prospect for years.

Now, suburban Cobb County, Ga. — population 700,000 — may pull it off. The County Commission votes today on building a new ballpark for the Atlanta Braves just outside the beltway.

Like all stadium deals, the project springs from a distinct set of financial and political realities that may translate poorly to other markets. But the deal does underscore two basic trends relevant to Tampa Bay:

• Stadiums are expensive, even without retractable roofs. Counting land, infrastructure and stadium, the Cobb project comes in at $670 million and is due to open for the 2017 season.

• The public purse often seals the deal, even with a franchise as rich as the Braves. Cobb County's share is $300 million.

Total costs in Atlanta — including a real estate development on the site — could top $1 billion, a "staggering figure,'' said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.

"But each project is unique,'' he said. "I don't think that model is a reflection of what may potentially happen here."

Still, if a majority of commissioners there agree, Cobb will become a stadium pathfinder today — just as Miami and Minneapolis have since the Rays began their quest. If St. Petersburg ever lets the team and Tampa officials start talking, the Braves deal will help define the conversation.

The details

Turner Field will be only two decades old when the Braves' lease expires. But highways separate it from the downtown core, and nearby neighborhoods tilt toward the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

The Cobb site is surrounded by affluent suburbs and closer to ticket buyers. Here are details released last week.

Stadium cost: The Braves did not break out the cost of just the 42,000 seat, open-air stadium from the $670 million project. But recent examples in Minneapolis and Miami would suggest $400 million to $450 million.

A similar stadium in Tampa — with a retractable roof added — probably would fall in the $550 million to $600 million range.

Mixed-use development: The Braves will mimic an urban atmosphere by loading up their 60 acres with an additional $400 million worth of shops, restaurants and bars. As with talk of a Tampa "entertainment district" near Channelside Bay Plaza, this follows a trend of folding ballparks into broader real estate projects.

Parking: The Cobb site is about three-fourths as big as Tropicana Field acreage. With the stadium taking up 15 acres and amenities consuming much of the rest, parking will be tight.

The plan calls for 4,000 spaces in a garage under the stadium, plus 2,000 somewhere else on the site — enough to cover about 15,000 people. For sellouts, most fans will come from remote sites, possibly in trams and buses.

Downtown Tampa has existing garages and parking areas that could support a stadium, but trolleys and buses may still be necessary to funnel fans.

Land and infrastructure: The Braves must buy the land, install internal roads and utilities and build a pedestrian bridge across Interstate 285 to the Cobb Galleria Centre, where many fans will park.

These costs probably account for about a third of the $670 million. The lesson for Tampa: Land is expensive. The grander the project, the higher the cost. A Channel District site, for example, might require the costly removal of a flour mill.

Public money: Cobb will pay $300 million, adding $18 million a year to debt, financed largely from existing property taxes, plus new hotel and property taxes.

On the plus side, the Braves estimate the county will gain about $7 million in new property taxes on the 60 acres, plus $3 million more for schools. Nearby land values also may rise, depending on how many people want to live, work and shop near a busy stadium.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who could not be reached, has suggested in the past that a taxing district now paying off the convention center could help finance part of a Tampa stadium. Hagan said Monday he could support that if the deal "furthers county goals.''

Revenue split: The Braves keep all stadium revenues and pay no rent to Cobb County. The Braves also keep all game day parking revenue on county lots within two miles of the stadium.

This does not bode well for any financing arrangements in Tampa that would depend on stadium generated revenues. In Atlanta, ticket prices, parking fees, sponsorships and naming rights likely will run significantly higher than in Tampa. If the Braves captured those revenues to make their project fly, the Rays may be reluctant to cede much of them in a weaker market.

Finding the dollars

The Cobb County stadium is not a done deal. On Monday, an unlikely partnership of the Tea Party and Sierra Club demanded a 60-day delay of today's commission vote.

"Everybody's pretty much similarly outraged that a proposal of this magnitude could be pushed to a vote in just two weeks,'' group representative Rich Pellegrino told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In Hillsborough, Hagan said he would not rule out hotel bed taxes or other sources that mainly affect nonresidents. But Hillsborough will not mimic Cobb's deal, which leans heavily on local property taxes, he said. "$300 million? That is not going to happen here.''

Financing prospects in Tampa also have dimmed recently.

Stadium boosters have coveted car rental fees — mostly collected at Tampa International Airport — as one possible source. But airport officials announced last week they would double the existing rental fee to finance their own improvements. The higher the fees, the harder it will be to raise them more.

Buckhorn's idea of tapping into downtown taxing districts also faces a road bump. Those districts must renew by 2015, and some county officials no longer want to devote their half of the proceeds completely to downtown projects — whether a stadium or anything else.

The districts have been "wonderful for development. You can see all sorts of things revitalized,'' said County Administrator Mike Merrill. "The question is how much more, and for how much longer we should continue to fund redevelopment in the city when we have many capital needs in the unincorporated area.''

Atlanta deal shows how expensive new baseball stadiums can be 11/25/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 9:02am]
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