BY JON GARGIS
MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL
Since the Atlanta Braves announced their move to Cobb County, citizens have debated the pros and cons of bringing a major league team to their community and whether the benefits will outweigh the expense of county tax dollars committed toward the development.
The full financial effect of SunTrust Park and its neighboring mixed-use development, The Battery Atlanta, is not yet clear. The Braves are just four months into their inaugural season and the Battery is still less than half fully operational.
But initial indications are that the development is exceeding projections for its first season, with some believing that the Braves’ presence in Cobb and additional growth sparked by it will have a positive return on the county. Critics of the stadium deal, however, contend that any positives stemming from the project still don’t outweigh the drawbacks of using taxpayer funds on a private development.
The following is a breakdown of some of the major dollar figures related to the project.
WHAT’S IT COSTING THE COUNTY?
SunTrust Park is expected to cost $672 million to build — a final number has not yet been generated as construction invoices continue to trickle in, said Bill Volckmann, Cobb’s finance director. But of that expected price tag, Cobb’s contribution to construction costs was capped at $300 million while the Braves are to pay the remaining $372 million.
The county’s contribution came from revenue from $376.6 million in bonds, Volckmann said, with $368 million of it going toward funding the stadium after $8.6 million in bond issuance costs. Of the $368 million, the county is responsible for $276 million and the Braves $92 million.
Starting this year, the county will be making an annual contribution of $16.4 million to cover its portion of the stadium bonds, with the payments continuing through the 30-year life of the bonds, which end in 2047, Volckmann said.
The Braves are also on the hook for the bond payments to the tune of $6.1 million annually for 30 years — or $183 million, which breaks down to $92 million for principal and $91 million to pay for interest on the debt. This leaves the county to cover $276 million in debt service on the bonds. This amount — combined with $14 million in planned transportation improvements and $10 million contributed by the Cumberland Community Improvement District — represents the $300 million cap in public money county officials tout, though the actual contribution will be higher when interest is factored in.
Of the county’s $16.4 million bond payment contribution, $6.4 million is the only direct out-of-pocket expense for taxpayers via property taxes out of the county’s general fund, Volckmann said.
Special taxes and fees cover the remaining $10 million of the annual local portion on the stadium bonds, with the lion’s share coming from the Cumberland Special Services District II millage rate. The 2.45-mill rate is levied on nonresidential properties within the special service district, which roughly follows the boundaries of the Cumberland CID, and earns about $5.15 million annually, according to Volckmann.
Another $2.74 million is set to come from a $3 per room, per night fee at hotels and motels in the Cumberland area, while a hotel/motel tax draws $1.51 million. The remaining $600,000 comes from a rental car tax.
There are also previous one-time startup costs not related to the stadium’s construction in play. Various funding sources, including the Cumberland CID, federal grants and the Cumberland Special Services District millage, are covering the cost of an $11 million multi-use bridge that spans Interstate 285, connecting the Battery with the Cobb Galleria. The bridge will be completed later this month, though it was opened for pedestrian traffic for the Braves’ April 14 home opener and subsequent home games. It was closed at times for construction work during non-game days.
The county foots the bill for police officers to handle traffic control around SunTrust Park on game days. Initial estimates came to about $900,000 annually. But as the season has rolled on, the county has seen reductions in the number of needed officers with the cost of traffic control now expected to come down to $400,000 for the season.
The county also incurs personnel costs for a traffic control crew to put out cones and barricades on game days, Cobb Department of Transportation Director Jim Wilgus said, with that cost amounting to just over $1,013 per game — about $82,100 for the season. Wilgus added that while the department also has staff in a traffic command center at SunTrust Park, they are paid for by the Braves.
In addition, the county and the Braves are splitting an estimated $70 million in maintenance costs over the 30-year agreement. The county’s contribution is capped at $35 million over that term. This year’s payment is $1.23 million.
WHAT’S THE RETURN?
Among the benefits Cobb is seeing from SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta are rising property taxes on the Braves’ property, higher returns on the county’s special 1 percent sales tax programs and a halo effect of increased development — and job growth — in the Cumberland area.
Among the dollars coming back to the county in relation to the Braves development are property taxes. Before the team’s arrival in Cobb, the property they own around the new stadium had a fair market value of $19.7 million, which, factoring in that year’s 7.72 millage rate, brought in $60,786 in taxes for the county’s general fund, according to county figures.
This year, the fair market value on the same property rose to $168.1 million. Factoring in this year’s millage of 6.76 mills, the Braves are expected to pay $454,690, according to the county.
Also earning property taxes from the development will be the Cobb County School District, which is levying 18.9 mills — good for nearly $1.3 million for its coffers.
Those taxed amounts only reflect the value of the Battery, as the stadium is owned by the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority and is therefore not taxed.
The taxed amount is based on the property’s value as of Jan. 1 this year, when a good portion of the Battery was still under construction. That’s why Stephen White, director and chief appraiser of the Cobb Tax Assessor’s office, says estimates of future tax revenues from the Braves property are hard to come by.
“We really need to look at the properties as they get done with construction to have a better idea,” White said. “Some of those properties will also be income-based and we would need to review that information. Some of that data may not come in until after the first of the year.”
Officials with both the county and the Cumberland CID expect a significant increase in property taxes when the 2018 tax bills are issued as most of the Battery will be complete by Jan. 1, 2018.
David Connell, president and CEO of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, said early predictions on what the Battery could earn for the county could only be drawn by making assumptions on economic factors.
“Some of the assumptions are going to drive what the payback is. People don’t want to state a specific thing because things can go left or right. For example, you’ve got to assume the economy is going to continue as it is. You can’t do it outside of that,” Connell said.
He predicts that the Battery’s property values will go up “at a steep angle” from its Jan. 1 assessed value, giving what he called a conservative estimate — an average of $250 million a year, which would be nearly 49 percent higher than its assessed value from the first day of this year.
Such a value on the property under current tax rates could see the mixed-use development generating $676,000 for the county’s general fund annually, with the Cobb School District getting nearly $1.9 million per year.
The property taxes to be paid this year to the county’s general fund and school district do not include the 5 mills the Braves contribute as part of the Cumberland CID.
“Next year, the Atlanta Braves will be the largest contributor in the Cumberland CID, but most people don’t know that,” says Mike Plant, the Braves’ president of development. “We’re a willing participant in that, knowing the value and the benefit of the CID, knowing what they’re putting into the public side of the Braves and SunTrust Park partnership.”
Current figures from the CID and Cobb County show that Cumberland-based Home Depot is the top contributor to the tax district, and is expected to contribute this year about $407,860. The Braves are second on the list at $336,309.
If Connell’s estimated property value on the Battery were to come to pass, it would result in the Braves paying $500,000 in property taxes to the Cumberland CID annually.
SALES TAX REVENUES
Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, whose district includes SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta, presented at county commissioners’ July 25 meeting an analysis of the already collected and expected tax revenues generated by the Braves development through the first 75 days of the stadium’s operations, from opening day April 14 to the end of June, with figures taken from the Cumberland CID, White’s office and Braves officials.
Through that two-and-a-half-month period, he said, the stadium and Battery generated $1.6 million in revenue for Cobb County’s and the Cobb County School District’s respective special purpose local option sales taxes. The 1-percent SPLOSTs resulted in $800,000 for the county, $800,000 for the school system.
The sales tax revenues, Ott said, reflected only 30 percent of the Battery open for business.
The reported revenues also show that the development is on track to exceed projections made in a 2016 economic study from Atlanta-based Brailsford and Dunlavey, which was commissioned by Cobb’s Competitive EDGE. Its estimate for 2017 was that the ballpark, the Battery and associated office space would generate more than $1.7 million for the year in sales tax revenue.
“Our study was completed at the end of first quarter of fiscal 2016, so with over a year of new developments, the forecast has increased to even higher levels,” said Brooks Mathis, who serves as executive director of Cobb EDGE and executive vice president of economic development for the Cobb Chamber of Commerce.
Mathis said another economic impact study is planned once the Braves’ first season in Cobb is complete and the Battery is fully open.
It’s not just the Braves that have helped contribute SPLOST dollars. On one night alone — July 9’s Metallica concert at SunTrust Park — the stadium generated $121,000 in total SPLOST revenue for the county and Cobb schools, with the two entities each getting $60,500.
“I’d say that’s a pretty good return,” Plant said, pointing out that even after factoring in the estimated $11,000 cost to Cobb to provide traffic control, the county government still earned $49,500.
Both Plant and Ott predict larger numbers to come.
For instance, the Cobb School District stands to benefit by as much as $100 million from sales and property taxes over the next 10 years of Braves operations, Plant said.
“There was a lot of noise out there (in previous years) that we were taking money away from the kids. The Cobb County general fund doesn’t fund the schools,” Plant said.
Plant says tax revenues beyond the first year are expected to go even higher, with projections of $25 million annually in property and sales taxes contributed to both the county and state.
“When you look at 12 months forward, when basically 90 percent of our operation is up and running and open, that property tax that we pay goes up, sales tax continues to go up, and everything else around it,” he said.
… AND THE HALO EFFECT FOR COBB
The Braves development’s true impact, Ott says, extends well beyond the Braves property.
“There’s a lot of periphery revenue sources that are not directly tied to the stadium that have a positive impact on the county’s revenue,” Ott said.
The Brailsford and Dunlavey study also projected that the ballpark, Battery and growth in the Cumberland area would result in nearly $2.1 billion in development activity, supporting more than 25,000 jobs. Those jobs will support earnings of nearly $860 million, according to the study, while associated tax revenues over the span of 30 years would likely generate $610 million for the county and more than $1.4 billion for the state.
Beyond those projections, the Braves’ true fiscal impact on Cobb may be hard to measure, though a few numbers begin to tell the story.
Property values in Ott’s District 2, which includes Cumberland and east Cobb, have increased by almost $11 billion since 2013, according to the data the commissioner shared last month.
Ott says Cumberland alone has seen significant developments step up to the plate in the wake of the Braves’ announcement of their entry into Cobb. The area has five new class-A office buildings planned or in the pipeline — none, he said, had been built in the previous decade.
The team’s move has also sparked corporate relocations. In 2015, Aaron’s announced it would be moving its headquarters from Buckhead to Cobb the following year and did so in July of that year.
Comcast will have the headquarters of its Central Division, which reaches from Chicago to Key West, Florida, in a nine-story office building towering over the Battery. The facility, which will have about 200,000 square feet of office space, is expected to have about 800 to 1,000 employees when it is completed later this year.
RaceTrac, meanwhile, is remaining in Cobb, moving its headquarters this summer from Cumberland Parkway near Cumberland Mall to Galleria Parkway in Cumberland. Nelson Geter, executive director of the Development Authority of Cobb County, said earlier this year that retaining the convenience store chain was expected to keep 520 high-paying positions in the county, as well as add 90 new jobs over a five-year period.
The Cumberland corridor is also seeing construction of almost 5,000 new residential units, Ott said.
“As those come online, you start to increase property taxes, and it’s people in the area. They weren’t being proposed before (the Braves arrival),” he said.
Those in charge of existing structures in the Cumberland area are also experiencing boosts from the Braves’ arrival, or are anticipating them in the months and years to come.
From the Battery, directly across Interstate 285 via the nearly completed bridge lies the Cobb Galleria Centre, which in 2016 was host to 669 events and brought an estimated 344,000 visitors through the doors, according to Karen Caro, marketing manager for the Cobb Galleria Centre and Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
Galleria officials are optimistic the Braves’ arrival will have an impact on their facility in the years to come, with Michele Swann, general manager and CEO of the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority, calling the new development a “destination” that “strengthen(ed) the livability of the region.”
“Since our booking window for trade shows and conventions varies from one to four years, we should have a better sense of the impact (of it) by the end of 2018,” Swann said, but added that over the past five months, the retail and restaurant sales in the Galleria Specialty Shops, which connects to the Galleria, had remained somewhat consistent to prior years.
Opening at the Specialty shops in a space previously occupied by Buckhead Pizza Co. this summer was Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer Dale Murphy’s new restaurant, Murph’s. Swann said the establishment’s arrival was “directly attributable to synergies with SunTrust Park” as well as Murphy’s career with the team.
WELCOME TO COBB
Hotels are also reporting increased business. Don Geiger, the general manager of the Courtyard Atlanta Cumberland Center, serves as chairman of Cobb Hotel Council. He says his 182-room hotel has had its share of Braves fan stay during the team’s first season in the county.
“We track, when guests come in, what reason they’re coming in for. If their exclusive reason is for the Braves, we track that. We’ve had over 400 room nights at our hotel that were here just for the Braves. That’s a little over $50,000 in just room revenue,” Geiger said earlier this month. “I know (other) hotels are doing more than that, because our hotel is 1.1 miles from the stadium — I’m sure (closer hotels) are getting a larger piece of that pie.
“But we can’t complain — that’s business that wasn’t coming in before,” he added. “For the hotel industry, it’s nothing but a positive.”
Holly Quinlan, the CEO of Cobb Travel and Tourism, said she, too, has received similar reports from other area hotels that have gotten similar bumps in room bookings and revenues.
“We have lots of anecdotal stories from hotels that we partner with that absolutely say they’ve gotten business from fans going to the Braves games,” Quinlan said. She added that the Hilton Garden Inn Atlanta NW/Wildwood, which is located at Windy Hill and Powers Ferry roads and not far from SunTrust Park, has reported several sold out nights due to the Braves games.
Plant said the leadership of several Cobb hotels has also told him that they are exceeding expectations of what they thought the Braves would bring.
“We know, from 25 percent of our fan base traveling from outside the state of Georgia, we’re going to fill up those hotels, and we’ve done that very well out of the box,” Plant said.
Joining the Cumberland area’s slate of hotels will be the Battery-adjacent Omni Hotel, which is expected to open its doors in early 2018.
Restaurants outside the Battery are also getting a Braves boost, Quinlan added. “ Restaurants surrounding the ballpark have also enjoyed new customers that are here for the Braves game,” she said.
CRITICS: TAXPAYERS STILL ON ‘SHORT END OF THE STICK’
One opponent of the Braves development has been Lance Lamberton, chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association. His concern over the project was that if tax revenue projections fell short, individual Cobb County taxpayers could be called upon down the road to make up the difference through additional sales taxes or increased property taxes.
Lamberton was among those last month who voiced opposition to Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce’s failed proposal to increase property tax rates amid the county’s highest-ever tax digest. Boyce’s proposed tax hike came despite Cobb’s 2017 gross tax digest clocking in at the highest level ever at $33.66 billion — up 6.5 percent from last year. The county chairman’s proposed 0.13-mill increase was the equivalent of the cost commissioners were told earlier this year would be needed to fund a portion of the $40 million parks bond approved in 2008.
But it was SunTrust Park, and the local contributions to it, that many opponents of the tax increase cited in town halls Boyce held on the proposed millage.
“I don’t see the average taxpayer as really benefiting from (SunTrust Park), and I don’t particularly like the idea of fans who go to the game having the entertainment venue subsidized by other people, taxpayers, who don’t care about baseball and don’t care about the Braves,” Lamberton said. “Thus far, at least in the early part of it, until the property values continue to rise and there’s further development in the Battery and everywhere else, we’re definitely on the short end of the stick right now. Maybe Bob Ott and others are projecting and predicting that it’s going to pay for itself, but are we going to get any property tax relief as a result of that? That’s a big question mark.”
When asked if the Braves issue was a fair point to raise by opponents of the millage increase, Boyce declined to qualify it as either a fair or unfair criticism.
“Whether it was fair or not, it was certainly driving their anger. That’s the part I’m glad that I got out (for town halls) and did what I did, because if I sat in my office, I would have not been able to gauge the fact that people are still very angry about how the deal was made,” Boyce said. “They’re not angry at the Braves — they’re angry that the bond was agreed upon without input from the people, without a referendum.”
Boyce said while initial returns seem to indicate that the county is above projections on tax revenues, the Braves’ season continues, and a better grasp on what the team’s financial return for the county will be can’t be made until the season’s end.
“Some of the investment on the Braves comes back in SPLOST, some comes back through property taxes. Cumulatively, will it ultimately equal what we’ve put into the Braves? I certainly hope so,” he says. “The only ones that count, as far as I’m concerned, for me, relatively, is what revenue comes into the county coffers. If that goes to the schools, that doesn’t help — it might indirectly because you can have good schools and people will want to come here, they come here and buy houses and pay property taxes on them, but for direct return on investment, the answer is I don’t know.”
Larry Savage, who last year ran for the chairman’s seat against Boyce and incumbent Tim Lee, contends that while the Braves-related development may spark increases in business in some areas, it may come as a detriment to other establishments.
“People are spending money there that is part of their usual disposable income, that would be spent elsewhere if the Battery didn’t exist. Only over time does other growth sort of catch up with that new capacity for taking people’s money, so I’m not sure that’s a net increase for the county,” Savage said. “It may be a net increase for the area, but I’m not sure it’s a net increase for the county. Some of it to be sure comes from people outside the county, but nonetheless I think there’s some substitution effect to be seen there.”
Savage said he does not foresee the new development making up for the local investment poured into the area, which he says he has avoided visiting in recent months.
“I think one of the things you have to think about is that this permanently changed the character of the community. Whether you think it’s a good change or bad change is an individual’s decision,” he said. “In all honesty, I haven’t been in the area to do anything, shopping like that, since it got close to completion, so I don’t know what the traffic is like, but my presumption is that it’s a place I want to stay away from — it’s like Barrett Parkway at Christmas.”
Ott is a bit more optimistic that the Braves development will have a net gain for the county.
“I think as all the Battery comes online, I think the return on investment will continue improve to a point that I think it’ll be positive. The initial numbers are positive and show a strong response to the stadium,” he said, but added that unknowns remain.
“I think a lot of it will depend on how well the Braves play. And we haven’t seen the offseason yet.”