Years after opening day, Braves-Cobb stadium deal still under scrutiny

March 23, 2021 Atlanta - Construction of thyssenkrupp Elevator CompanyÕs North American operations center near The Battery Atlanta on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
March 23, 2021 Atlanta - Construction of thyssenkrupp Elevator CompanyÕs North American operations center near The Battery Atlanta on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The conversation surrounding the $300 million in public dollars for stadium construction that lured the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County may have faded from everyday conversation.

But the debate over return on investment has only intensified in some circles lately, and there is still disagreement over whether the deal has been a boon or boondoggle for taxpayers.

Kennesaw State economics professor J.C. Bradbury released a study earlier this month which found that the tax revenue generated from the Braves’ relocation “fell well short of covering the public subsidies that fund the stadium.” It was one of two studies he’s authored in the past eight months on the stadium’s financial payoff — or in his view, a lack thereof.

“While proponents of subsidizing the Cobb baseball stadium have described it as an economic “home run,” this analysis indicates that the more appropriate baseball analogy is a “sacrifice bunt,” Bradbury wrote in a separate July paper.

Mike Plant, president and chief executive of the Braves Development Company, told the County Commission on Tuesday that the economic impact of the stadium does not justify the public investment, unless the surrounding, privately funded mixed-use development known as The Battery, is included in the analysis.

“Our collective public-private partnership always was focused on the mixed-use development,” Plant said. “This was never about building a professional ballpark as a standalone facility.

“I know I’ve said over a hundred times on behalf of our organization those don’t pencil out most of the time. This has been about $1.1 billion in private investment into the Battery.”

Former County Commissioner Bob Ott, who represented the Smyrna area in which the stadium is located for 12 years before deciding not to seek reelection in 2020, said he may not have Bradbury’s training in economics but he does have a pair of eyes. And he agrees with Plant.

Ott said five Class A office towers near the stadium have been built since the Braves announced the move, but not one was constructed in 20 years prior. He said the stadium and Battery have brought 23,000 jobs to the area and $1 billion in investment.

“A (economic) model is one thing,” Ott said. “But I’m looking at what’s really there.”

Thyssenkrupp Elevators is building Cobb’s tallest building at the location. The 420-foot glass tower, which is scheduled for completion in 2022, will have 18 elevator shafts and serve as a testing ground for its projects. One includes the first rope-less and sideways-moving elevator system.

A few months ago, Papa Johns went public with plans to build the pizza chain’s Atlanta headquarters as part of the Thyssenkrupp site.

The development has attracted the regional headquarters of Comcast. And the number of residents in the Cumberland Community Improvement District, whose businesses pay a special tax to help finance the stadium debt, has grown from 17,000 in 2017 to more than 30,000, said CID Executive Director Kim Menefee.

“If Cobb County has a downtown, this would be the downtown,” Menefee said.

Overall the Braves’ development has attracted 42 corporations to the CID, said Cobb County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Sharon Mason.

During Tuesday’s presentation, Cobb Finance Director Bill Volckmann displayed figures showing that the Cobb County schools had received an additional $5 million in 2020 as result of the development.

The data also showed that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely hampered the ballpark’s operations, and to a lesser extent The Battery’s. But it doesn’t appear to have significantly affected the county’s budget.

The county financed its $300 million portion of the stadiums’ budgeted $672 million cost. The amount taxpayers have paid to service the debt has declined from $8.1 million in 2017 to $4.3 million in 2019, according to the presentation.

That figure only increased $250,000 in 2020, despite the virus.

‘Some boats become yachts’

The county’s data lines up with a 2018 study from the Georgia Tech Center for Economic Development Research, which was funded by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce — an ardent defender of the stadium deal whose board includes Braves’ President and Chief Executive Officer Derek Schiller.

The Georgia Tech study looked at property values from 2013, the year the Braves move was announced, to 2017, the year the stadium opened.

It compared property values within the 6-square-mile Cumberland Community Improvement District surrounding the Braves’ development with one other CID in Fulton and DeKalb counties that encompasses Perimeter Mall.

According to the study, property values rose 46% from $9.7 to $14.1 billion in the Cumberland CID during that time period. While other factors could account for most of the increase, roughly 13% of it couldn’t be explained, the study said.

“It would be reasonable to attribute all that (the unexplained 13% increase) to the Halo Effect of SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta,” the study said.

But Bradbury, the Kennesaw State economist, looked at data for the Cumberland CID from 2010-2019 and compared it with numbers from nine other metro Atlanta CID’s over the same time period.

He concluded that overall property values in the Cumberland CID were one percent lower than expected three years after the stadium opened, after comparing it to models he created based on the property values in CIDs within metro Atlanta that didn’t have sports stadiums.

“Thus, Truist Park’s construction appears to have dampened property values,” he wrote.

Bradbury said data show the five premium office towers, the 23,000 jobs and the $1 billion investment would have come to the area regardless of the stadium. The stadium benefited a few organizations, but not everyone in the CID, he said.

“It’s not a rising tide lifting all boats,” Bradbury said. “It’s that some boats became yachts.”

In Bradbury’s March paper, the economist examined sales taxes throughout metro Atlanta to show that the new revenue generated by the stadium and Battery weren’t statistically significant.

Fred Beloin, a lawyer who works out of — and partially owns — a 40-year-old office building across the street from the Battery, said he initially feared an increase in traffic from the stadium but it hasn’t been that bad.

Beloin said the Battery’s restaurants are nice places to have lunch. But he wonders if the development might have contributed to other establishments’ decline. He used to have breakfast every morning at the Georgian Club, Atlanta’s first suburban city club, founded in 1982.

Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, the club’s chair, announced in an April 2020 letter that it was closing, citing a number of factors, particularly COVID’s impact. A representative from the company that managed the club did not return a message seeking comment.

Regardless, Beloin said his building has faired well in the aftermath of the Braves’ move. All nine of his tenants remained in the building, with one exception, a firm that moved to its own office space. Beloin helped negotiate that purchase.

“It’s been better than expected,” Beloin said. “The folks who are here seem happy.”

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