This is the point where you just tip your cap to the Braves, and acknowledge that they won. Even at a time when politicians and taxpayers are getting wary about publicly funding stadiums, the Braves just walked away with nearly $400 million from Cobb County, Ga., for a new ballpark, and did so without the nasty business of opposition.
Cobb Commissioners voted last night, 5-0, to devote $392 million to building a new Braves stadium to open in 2017, with the operating agreement allowing the county to borrow up to $397 million. The Braves will chip in $230 million.
If you attended the vote, you might've gotten the impression that everyone was for it. Twelve attendees spoke, and all 12 spoke in favor of the ballpark. That's because Commissioners allowed only 12 speaking slots, and pro-ballpark people—the business interests—had supporters lining up to nab the speaking slots more than five hours before the meeting.
Several critics of the deal made their way toward the front of the commission meeting room and asked to be given an opportunity to speak. For a minute, the scene turned tense when they would not relent the floor. They were critical of the process of limiting the floor to a dozen public speakers for such an important vote.
One of those critics, Ben Williams, with the Cobb chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, afterward accused the commission of "ignoring the voice of the people."
Another critic, Rich Pellegrino, said the process was stacked against people who couldn't leave work early and spend hours in line waiting to speak. Pellegrino, with the group Citizens for Governmental Transparency, said he arrived at about an hour before the meeting but it was too late to get on the list to speak.
"We're working people," Pellegrino said. "We're not on corporate welfare. It's a slap in the face."
Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee said its rules were followed "in the best interest" of everyone in attendance.
Some of those against the stadium deal were forcibly removed from the room. The meeting was over within two hours, the commissioners approving everything without debating or taking questions.
The Braves have been masters at brokering no dissent:
• When Atlanta balked at replacing the nearly 20-year-old Turner Field, team executives approached Cobb County—secretly, because as the team president said, if people knew about it, they would have said no.
• The funding was secured through some creative taxation, specifically chosen to avoid requiring a public referendum; Cobb County residents were never allowed to vote on giving $397 million to a baseball team.
• The actual vote on the operating agreement was only announced after 6 p.m. on the Friday before Memorial Day—concerned parties had just a long weekend to examine the details of a massive deal.
And the deal still contains questions and landmines. Cobb County has committed just $14 million to transportation improvements that are likely to cost at least 10 times that. The bond measures, released for the first time on Friday night, reveal that the Braves do not actually guarantee the $400 million in private development around the stadium that they had touted, rendering one of the project's biggest selling points imaginary long before ground is even broken.
This is going to cost Cobb County taxpayers well more than $400 million. But will the new ballpark provide an economic benefit in return? Well, there's a first time for everything.