By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on March 7, 2014
The Atlanta Braves are so convinced they will meet their ambitious schedule of building a new stadium in Cobb County by April 2017 that they have no Plan B.
“We have not thought about it,” said Mike Plant, executive vice president of business operations for the Atlanta Braves. “A hundred percent of our focus is building that stadium and playing there in April 2017. We are going to do what we said we are going to do. We said we are going to build a great ballpark and destination.”
On Nov. 11, 2013, the Atlanta Braves shocked both the city of Atlanta and the metro area when the baseball team announced it would not be renewing its lease at Turner Field at the end of 2016 because it would be building a new $672 million ballpark in Cobb County with $300 million of it in public funds.
Most of the public funds would come from community improvement districts — where businesses tax themselves to improve the areas around their investments.
Two weeks later, the Cobb County Commission voted 4-1 in favor of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to proceed with a stadium deal with the Atlanta Braves.
At the same time, the Braves announced plans to co-develop a mixed-use project around the new ballpark to add retail and entertainment venues that would be available before and after baseball games as well as throughout the year.
Both the ballpark and the mixed-use development are slated to open in time for the 2017 baseball season.
Several weeks ago, Atlanta Business Chronicle interviewed a veteran municipal securities attorney, Dan Kolber, who was a founding partner of Jackson Securities and who is now president and CEO of Atlanta-based Intellivest Securities.
After carefully reviewing the MOU and all the legal and financial requirements that will be needed to put a deal in place by Jan. 1, 2015, Kolber questioned the ability to meet such a timetable, especially if there were to be the threat of litigation — an issue that could slow down the issuance of bonds for the project.
Even Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee acknowledged at the time that it would take “a herculean effort” to get it all done.
Atlanta Business Chronicle did try to get a response from the Atlanta Braves for that story. But that was when the first 2014 snowstorm hit, and early deadlines hindered the paper’s ability to get a response from Braves executives. They were assured that they would have an opportunity to respond.
On Feb. 27, Plant and Derek Schiller, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Atlanta Braves, sat down for nearly two hours to share their thoughts on the project. “We are ahead of schedule,” Plant said. “We have more than 50 people working on this project. We are ahead of our master plan with a ton of experts. We feel better about this decision today than we did back in November when it was approved.”
Plant said the next step will be to get the Cobb County Commission to approve the long-form agreement based on the MOU framework.
“The first draft is very close to being finished,” Plant said, adding that the Braves have moved three ball clubs in the past 12 years.
Asked about the potential legal challenges that the project might face, both Schiller and Plant did not appear to be overly concerned. “We have had a team of legal experts that have vetted all the issues regarding the bonds and legal issues that need to be handled,” Schiller said. “They have given the Braves and Cobb County the confidence that we are on track so that everything will be done in a legally approved manner.” Plant added that in the past 30 years, none of the legal challenges to the kind of bonds being proposed by the Braves and Cobb County have been successful in Georgia.
“There’s an understanding in Cobb that we have a compressed time line,” Plant said. “I think we could get a decision in a pretty good time frame — an expedited decision. They know our objectives.”
“There’s nothing today that suggests that we will have any issues to prevent us from meeting our schedule,” Schiller said.
Asked about what options the Braves would have if something unforeseen were to occur, both said they are so focused on the Cobb solution that they are not spending any energy considering other options. Once again, they said that they haven’t given any thought to a back-up plan.
Coolray Field, home to the minor league Gwinnett Braves, seats only about 10,000 instead of the 40,000 that would be able to attend games at the Cobb ballpark or the nearly 50,000 who can be seated at Turner Field.
The Braves do have a unilateral option to renew their lease at Turner Field for another five-year term. They would have to let the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority know by Jan. 1, 2016 — one year before their lease is up — if they intend to renew. The Braves would have three more five-year options to extend that lease.
If the timetable in Cobb were to be delayed because of legal, financial or political issues, the Braves would have to negotiate with the Recreation Authority (controlled two-thirds by the city of Atlanta and one-third by Fulton County) for the right to play at Turner Field for just one or two more years.
Given the way that talks broke off between the Braves and the city in 2013 – after two years of off-and-on negotiations – it is unclear how those discussions would proceed.
Instead of exploring alternatives, Plant said the Braves and the team’s contingent of 50 experts are focused night and day on making a series of decisions about the development of the new stadium.
That includes the design of the seating bowl, the amenities in the ballpark and the design issues related to the variety of events that potentially could be held in the stadium. Many of those decisions will have to be made within the next 90 days.
At the same time, the Braves are moving forward on the retail and entertainment complex that will be adjacent to the stadium on the 60 acres located just northwest of the I-285 and I-75 interchange.
After two hours of interviewing the executives, one fact is clear: If they have any doubts about whether they can pull off building a new Cobb ballpark and adjacent development by the spring of 2017, they certainly do a good job of hiding them.