Refinancing Coolray Field debt could save Gwinnett millions

A lot of things have gone wrong since Gwinnett County agreed to build a stadium for the Atlanta Braves’ AAA baseball team eight years ago. But the county may have answered one of its biggest Coolray Field questions: how to pay for it.

On Tuesday the Board of Commissioners agreed to refinance $29.8 million in stadium debt, a move that could save up to $6.1 million in the long run. That will make annual payments more affordable and allow the county to stop diverting some tax revenue to pay for the stadium.

The move won't solve all the stadium's problems. Attendance at Gwinnett Braves games has been abysmal, and a massive commercial development planned at the stadium may never happen. But the debt refinancing provides a dose of good news for a project that has repeatedly failed to live up to its billing.

“We’re pleased,” County Commission Charlotte Nash said Tuesday.

Gwinnett officials approved the stadium in 2008. Those in office at the time assured taxpayers the $45 million project would pay for itself and spark economic development. They cited a consultant’s study that showed Gwinnett would be one of the top minor league baseball markets in the country.

Those promises began to unravel almost immediately. The stadium has never paid for itself, and the cost of the project rose to $64 million.

The county paid $31 million in cash for Coolray Field and borrowed the rest of the money needed to build it.

Gwinnett officials pledged stadium revenue like naming rights, rent from the Braves and parking fees to cover the debt. But the stadium hasn’t generated as much revenue as projected. And much of the revenue to repay the debt comes from a car rental tax.

But even that has not been enough to cover the $2.7 million annual debt payments. Last year the county diverted $400,000 in hotel-motel tax money to help cover the debt and expects to do the same this year.

Tuesday’s action addresses that problem by refinancing the debt. Gwinnett officials believe the move will save at least $3.6 million and as much as $6.1 million through 2038, when the debt will be paid off.

The stadium still won’t pay for itself, but Financial Services Director Maria Woods believes the savings will be enough that the county will not need to use hotel-motel taxes to cover the stadium debt in the future.

It’s not the first time Gwinnett has taken advantage of low interest rates. Since 2011 the county has refinanced a number of debts, saving more than $55 million.

The stadium refinancing won’t occur until after Jan. 1, 2018 – the earliest allowed under the terms of the county’s debt. But by acting Tuesday, commissioners will be able to take advantage of low interest rates (the exact rate for the refinancing remains to be determined).

Other problems remain. Instead of one of the best baseball markets in the country, Gwinnett has proved to be one of the worst, as measured by attendance. This year, the Gwinnett Braves finished last in attendance in the 14-team International League.

Coolray Field also has not become the economic dynamo Gwinnett officials envisioned. In 2008, a developer pledged to build a massive commercial and residential development at the stadium. But he never bought all the necessary land.

Though the developer has built upscale apartments, the promised commercial development has not materialized. Now another developer wants to build a retirement community on part of the property. A public hearing on the proposal will be held in December.