Cobb town hall meeting about Braves stadium draws hundreds

The public’s first chance to weigh in on Cobb County’s $300 million deal to move the Atlanta Braves had many sights and sounds of a playoff game — blue Braves shirts, tomahawk chops, cheering, laughter and more than a few catcalls.

About 300 people showed up Thursday evening for the town hall meeting, and the vast majority of them seemed to have already made up their minds. While everyone was required to ask a question at the microphone, most took the opportunity for long preambles that revealed their positions.

Dan Styf, senior vice president of operations at Piedmont WellStar, said his company is one of the 180 businesses located in the Cumberland Community Improvement District, which will have a tax increase that is expected to generate $5 million a year toward the county’s $17.9 million annual debt payment.

“We think the (tax) is an investment that will make more money over time than we would have made had the money not been invested,” Styf said to a loud round of applause.

Tom Asselin, a resident of Vinings, hit on the topic that likely is on most people’s minds — traffic.

Asselin, who identified himself as a retired traffic planner, asked how many county commissioners live within a mile of the proposed site, near I-75 and I-285. The lack of response appeared to answer, none.

“If you did, then you would have an appreciation for the tremendous traffic difficulties out there right now,” Asselin said, adding that the projects the county is planning to mitigate congestion “are needed because of existing traffic problems.”

The Braves announced on Nov. 11 their intention to abandon Turner Field after the 2016 season for a new $672 million facility in Cobb. The amount of the project could drop by $50 million if the Braves decide to reduce their contribution. That would have no impact on the amount of public money going in.

The team announced Wednesday that it will fund a $400 million mixed-use development on 45 acres outside the stadium. There are 15 acres dedicated to the ballpark itself.

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee said publicity from the project has already been a tremendous boon for the county.

“We would have had to invest many millions of dollars to get the publicity Cobb County has received over the last two weeks,” he said, adding that the move will be a “stepping stone” to more development and higher property values.

The higher property values statement received a hearty round of laughter from skeptics.

Elizabeth Reside asked simply: “Have you thought about asking taxpayers if we want to put forth this money?”

Lee initially ignored the question and asked for the next one, before opponents shouted for an answer. Lee boomed into the microphone, “No.”

A different questioner asked why the County Commission’s Nov. 26 vote to approve a contract with the Braves couldn’t be delayed. “What is the downside of postponing the vote and allowing for a more full discussion, and an independent study so we as taxpayers know if any of these numbers are supportable?”

It received a huge round of applause.

Lee said a month’s delay could threaten the deal.

“There’s a lot of work that has to be done in order to play baseball in 2017,” Lee said. He added that the county has done a lot of work to ensure “the Atlanta Braves weren’t using us to get a better deal out of the city of Atlanta, and we wanted to make sure the numbers they were providing us were legitimate.”

Longtime resident Butch Thompson didn’t ask a question, but no one seemed to mind because his statement was short: “This is the best and biggest thing to happen to Cobb County.”

Lee opened the meeting with a comment that mirrored the signs of supporters: “I believe this corporate relocation … is a home run for Cobb County.” He later amended that statement to make it a “grand slam.”

Initial cheers were quickly challenged by an equal amount of boos.

There will be at least two other town hall meetings before the commission’s vote next week. Lee told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that only six residents will be allowed to speak before that meeting.