Braves’ stunning secret simmered for months

Tim Lee, Cobb County’s top elected leader, kept his secret for months.

It was in July, over a dinner at the exclusive Marietta Country Club, that Lee began talking to Atlanta Braves executives about a deal that has shocked baseball fans all over the country and blind-sided Atlanta city officials who thought they could keep the team downtown. One city official said the Braves had tried to “blackmail” Atlanta.

Lee and Brooks Mathis, a vice president of economic development for Cobb’s Chamber of Commerce, were the only two county officials privy to the secret negotiations with the Braves that culminated in Monday’s announcement of a $672 million development in the heart of the Cobb Parkway commerce district.

Rep. Earl Ehrhart, of Powder Springs, introduced Lee to high-ranking Braves officials, whom Lee did not identify, at the country club.

“We began conversations then,” Lee said. “My reaction was … Cobb County is open for business and we’d like to talk about any opportunity we have. We decided to get together again.”

And again, and again.

Mathis became the sole contact for Braves officials shortly after Lee’s initial meeting. He’s not sure exactly how many times they met, but his job was to find them a site and field cleanly all questions hurled his way.

“I was the only one involved, to keep it very confidential,” Mathis said. “We met quite frequently. It really didn’t differ from other projects as far as the path we took. But obviously it’s one of the largest projects we’ve worked on.”

And, of course, he had to keep a lid on the negotiations.

Lee said the secrecy was important because “it was very clear, if any word leaked out the deal was off.”

The secrecy was effective. Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said news of the move “shocked everybody” he knew. Eaves said it will leave a “big hole” downtown after the Braves abandon Turner Field.

“It’s very disappointing,” he said.

Mathis said the number of faces across the negotiating table from him frequently changed, depending on the types of questions being asked. But he thinks the county was successful because it was able to offer a large tract with easy interstate access in an established shopping, entertainment and corporate corridor.

And one that kept the team’s Atlanta mailing address, which he said was obviously important to the Braves.

The deal was especially surprising to Hans Utz, Atlanta’s deputy chief operating officer, who said the city and Braves had been in active negotiations for the past 18 months. Those negotiations revolved around a Turner Field lease renewal and redevelopment plans for the area around the downtown ballpark

Utz said Mike Plant, Braves vice president of operations, pulled him aside in one of the earliest conversations and said the team would leave unless the city complied with its requests.

“We said we can’t negotiate under this threat of blackmail; rather than make threats, why not talk instead about what we can jointly accomplish and find a route that isn’t based on blackmail?” Utz said.

Those negotiations stalled, Utz said, because the Braves wanted to engage on both sides of the process, to set parameters of the development and then to choose the developer — a role city officials deemed a conflict of interest.

Utz said the city asked this summer for another proposal from the Braves, which the team submitted in September. Among the demands were $100 million in city funds for infrastructure improvements and revenue from the future development. Utz said the city thought it had until mid-November to respond.

“We were operating under the good faith assumption they wanted $100 million (and were) suddenly given 48 hours to respond to a $450 million deal,” he said.

The Braves declined to discuss its negotiations with Atlanta.

As negotiations with the county went on, Cobb commissioners were in the dark.

Commissioner Helen Goreham said she and her colleagues learned about the proposal just last week. They were briefed by Braves executives John Schuerholz and Plant.

Lee refused on Monday to reveal any of the public financing specifics, saying the county and team are still negotiating and those details should be worked out in a couple of weeks. Lee added that there will be no referendum on the issue, and that the county commission is scheduled to approve a financing agreement Nov. 26. He doesn’t think it will be controversial with commissioners.

But Lee did say the $450 million figure being tossed about as Cobb’s investment by people including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is not correct. He also declined to say how the public portion will be funded or the deadline for having the financing in place.

The Braves also put out a statement late Monday saying the team will be a “significant investor” but the final mix of funding has not been determined. “There are many inaccurate funding numbers that have been put forward,” the statement says.

The possible expenditure of hundreds of millions of local tax dollars on a baseball stadium prompted questions from local government watchdogs.

“There are issues that need to be discussed,” J.D. Van Brink, a Cobb resident and chairman of the Georgia Tea Party, said. “Is it going to require any commitment from taxpayers? What’s the return, if any, for taxpayers?”

Mathis said the site has been pitched to several other developers in the past. In 2004, a $136 million development proposal got far enough to warrant an impact study to the Atlanta Regional Commission. The report estimated that development would bring in $4.3 million a year in local tax revenues.

A map on a Braves website shows nearly 100 acres in the plan, including a 57-acre site that would contain the stadium, and 43 acres on two other tracts across Circle 75 Parkway. The combined fair market value of the land is $29.7 million, according to Cobb County records.

The Braves say they plan to acquire 60 acres.

All of the property is owned by companies connected to Bernard Saul II, who Forbes ranks as the 252nd richest man in America with a net worth of $2.2 billion. Saul is chairman and CEO of Saul Centers, a Bethesda, Md.-based real estate firm.

For his part, Ehrhart said he became involved in the deal because he got to know Braves executives while helping former manager Bobby Cox in the $1 billion sports complex development known as LakePoint Sporting Community & Town Center in Emerson, Ga. Ehrhart said they met at the country club “on my ticket.”

Braves officials asked: “Is there somebody we can work with, because we’re serious about talking to Cobb County,” Ehrhart recalled. Lee “and his team get all the credit. I just did the introducing.”