Tim Lee sold himself as a smart-growth, smart business leader. It didn't convince voters to let him stay at the helm of Cobb County's government. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Kempner: Braves buddy Tim Lee sees proof he was right

Tim Lee sees evidence everywhere that he was right about business and the Atlanta Braves.

Baseball can transform a community. Or so he says.

Sure, he’ll be out of a job soon. His run as Cobb County commission chairman ends this year after voters booted him in the GOP primary runoff in favor of Mike Boyce, a retired Marine colonel.

Lee paid a penalty for looking like a bully on the path to getting what he wanted, which was to commit hundreds of millions of public dollars to pull the Braves from downtown and help pay for a new baseball palace.

Like plenty of other politicians in Atlanta and around the nation, Lee was selling an idea that at least historically has been hogwash: that subsidizing a pro sports stadium eventually will more than pay for itself with economic dividends for the community.

(“It isn’t a subsidy,” Lee told me. “It’s a business partnership. It’s a public-private partnership.” Which involved increases in rental car and hotel/motel taxes and fees, new property taxes in the Cumberland area and commitment of existing county property taxes.)

So a development boom around the stadium in the Cumberland/Galleria area is proof Cobb is on the right track, as Lee sees it. But it’s not that simple.

It’s true that land around the new SunTrust Park is boiling with construction crews. Unlike many sports venues, the Braves are creating not just a stadium, but an entire mixed-use development.

Its partners on The Battery Atlanta are churning out offices (including a nine-story regional headquarters for Comcast), apartments, shops, restaurants, a live music venue and a hotel.

Three other office buildings are underway in the vicinity. (At least two, I’m told, were planned before the Braves announcement.) One is a new headquarters for HD Supply, which is already in the area. Another is for Synovus, which is consolidating existing area offices. A third new building, I’m told, is largely pulling tenants from an existing building nearby.

Occupancy up

Office occupancy in the area has increased faster than other metro Atlanta sub-markets this year, according to Colliers International and CBRE, two real estate outfits. But average office rents haven’t increased as quickly.

But I’ve wondered how much of the growth would have happened regardless of the Braves?

Pretty much all of it, Lee told me. It just would have taken at least a decade longer, he said.

Paying to get the Braves from intown Atlanta was “a controlled accelerated investment in the future,” he explained.

OK, so he’s not a quote machine. He also tends to use the word “I” in place of the name Cobb. As in: “The only way I could be more attractive than a Gwinnett or Fayette or DeKalb was if I offered something they don’t have.”

The Braves deal “was transformational, not only for the economy but it was transformational as to what we offered as a product to be attractive to the educated workforce.”

Some real estate pros told me the team’s presence is making the area more attractive for businesses.

“The Braves stadium provides a spark for the area,” said Dan Wagner, CBRE’s Southeast research manager.

“For sure it is going to be a positive” for Cumberland, said Scott Amoson, research director in Atlanta for Colliers International.

But both also said some of the growth isn’t tied to the Braves.

The overall office market for metro Atlanta is rising. And the Cumberland area got spillover when places like Midtown, Buckhead and the Perimeter Mall area ran short of readily available room. The Cumberland Community Improvement District expected nearly $900 million in upcoming residential and office projects even before the baseball announcement.

Much of Cumberland’s recent growth has been fueled by expansions of businesses that were already in the area and had reasons to stay, whether or not they had the Braves as a neighbor.

Not afraid of traffic

Of course, the fact that they plan to stay undercuts critics’ predictions that fear of horrific game-day traffic would chase off many companies.

It’s still early. More growth could come and other businesses could leave once the stadium opens next year.

By then, I’m sure, Lee hopes to have another job.

Come Jan. 2, “I have to sell my ability to make deals happen,” he told me.

He said people have talked to him about working for them in business development jobs or becoming a consultant to help other counties. For now, he said, he doesn’t plan to do any work tied to Cobb.

Will he run for office again?

“Not happening” he said.

Chances?

“Zero.”

Still, he would “love to stay in the public sector.”

For example, “I think we are at the cusp of taking regionalism to the next level, and I’d really like to be part of that somehow, someway.”

Which is interesting coming from the leader of a county who jumped at the chance to pull a sports team from neighboring Atlanta. (The city surely would do the same if it had the chance. After all, it did with the HQ of Gwinnett-based tech company NCR, which is heading to Midtown.)

I guess that’s just business.

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