After spending tens of millions on infrastructure improvements in and around SunTrust Park, Cobb County could be on the hook for more.
The Braves say the county has not fulfilled its obligation to fund $14 million on transportation infrastructure. County officials say they are working with the team to identify what projects may count toward that commitment. Cobb Transportation Director Jim Wilgus wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the county has already spent $69.5 million.
The issue could present the first serious challenge to new Chairman Mike Boyce, who ran on transparency with regards the Braves deal.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” Boyce said after the meeting. “In conjunction with (district Commissioner Bob) Ott and the board and the county manager, we’re going to bring definition to that $14 million. Why is that? Because it goes to my thing about good faith and trust between us and the Braves.”
Questions remained following a presentation Tuesday from two engineers representing the team who outlined the projects the team maintains the county and Cumberland Community Improvement District are funding.
The projects they say the county and CID are liable for include a bus connector road, additional traffic signals, a stadium truck staging lane, an elevated pedestrian walkway to the stadium and a public road passing through The Battery, the Braves private, mixed-use development.
Absent from the list were any of the projects contained in a “conceptual” transportation and infrastructure plan that was attached to both the memorandum of understanding and the development agreement struck between the county and the team in 2013 and 2014. That document lists the diverging diamond at Windy Hill, the northwest corridor managed lanes, the Cumberland circulator bus, signage and a pedestrian bridge spanning Interstate-285.
Wilgus cited some of these projects and others in a Dec. 2 memo to County Manager David Hankerson, writing that taxpayers have already spent $69.5 million on nine road projects for the stadium and The Battery. He pointed to the realignment of Interstate North Parkway at Interstate North Circle; improved east- and west-bound I-285 ramps at Cobb Parkway; and intersection improvements at Cobb and Windy Ridge parkways.
“We feel this satisfies Cobb County’s transportation improvement contribution,” Wilgus wrote in the memo.
Derek Schiller, the Braves’ president of business, said last week that the $69.5 million in projects on the county’s list shouldn’t count toward the $14 million public commitment because they were “already established and in-process before the Braves even completed their deal with Cobb County.”
On Tuesday, Hankerson said he was surprised when he learned that the Braves expected to be reimbursed for additional infrastructure they built or are building.
“For the last year or so, there’s been nothing brought up as an outstanding issue, so we assumed that we were all proceeding on those infrastructure projects,” said Hankerson, referring to the projects listed in the agreements.
Hankerson said even though the transportation and infrastructure plan was “conceptual,” the county proceeded in good faith. He said he was personally unaware until recently that the bridge over I-285 was ineligible because the bulk of the funding came from sources other than the county.
Hankerson said he did not know where additional funding would come from, adding that it could come out of the general fund or SPLOST. He said he would present his recommendation to the board before the end of February.
“If we owe it to the Braves, we need to do it,” he said.
Ott said the list presented by the Braves had been “massaged and worked on” since 2014.
“It’s been a discussion between the county and the Braves,” Ott said.
Wilgus, the transportation director, declined to comment through a county spokesperson.
J.C. Bradbury, a sports economist at Kennesaw State University, tweeted his disapproval earlier Tuesday.
“What the Braves are asking for from Cobb for infrastructure is ridiculous. The projects are laid out in MOU & agreements,” he wrote. “There is some wiggle room in these agreements, but it seems the Braves request is outside the expectations of the contracts.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com