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Braves deal highlights debate on public money
Reed’s decision comes a few months after the mayor faced tough criticism for pushing through a plan to use public money to support a new NFL stadium downtown. And it underscores the challenges facing cash-strapped communities nationwide as they weigh the risks and rewards of using public money to help finance major sports venues.
“The bottom line is that the city was presented with a choice, and that choice was encumbering between $150 million to $250 million in debt and not having money to do anything else,” Reed said, referring to the city’s share of costs for desired improvements at Turner Field.
Instead, the mayor announced Tuesday that Turner Field would be demolished when the Braves leave in 2017, making way for a new large-scale development. Reed has said the city couldn’t match Cobb County’s offer of $450 million in public support to the Braves, though the team disputes that figure.
When faced with the question of how much to contribute to stadium construction or refurbishment, local leaders have to weigh the state of their community’s finances. In Atlanta’s case, Reed said the city has a $900 million backlog in infrastructure projects.
There have been instances of communities not putting up public money, but those are the exception, said Judith Grant Long, an associate professor of urban planning at Harvard University. Most notable is the current home of the San Francisco Giants, which was the first privately financed major league stadium in decades.
On the other end of the spectrum, Long pointed to the $975 million Minnesota Vikings stadium project. There, the public contribution has been estimated at $498 million.
“The impact of the recent recession on state and local tax revenues, and consequently fiscal management, should influence thinking about all new capital projects and the role of public debt,” Long said.
The new 42,000-seat Braves stadium would be located about 10 miles north of downtown and cost $672 million to build. Reed has said he was informed of the $450 million in public financing during a meeting with the team, but the Braves said the costs haven’t been finalized and “reports of this figure are erroneous.”
Cobb County appears to have at least three financing options that would not involve raising taxes on residents, including a hotel/motel tax that brought in $10 million in revenue last year, a community improvement district that pools money from area businesses for infrastructure projects and a budget surplus.
The proposal does include options for commercial development, including restaurants, retail, hotel and entertainment facilities that would surround the stadium and also would boost revenues. Details on the public funding are expected to be released in the next few weeks.
In defending his decision, Reed argued the Braves situation was much different than the city’s plan to contribute at least $200 million in public funding to support a new $1.2 billion, retractable-roof stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. Reed said the Falcons deal will use the city’s hotel/motel tax for improvements to state-owned property where the NFL stadium will be built.
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