“I was very surprised about the amount of support that turned out tonight,” Goreham said after the forum conducted at the Senior Wellness Center on Powder Springs Street.
“I think it was overwhelming with spirit and applause, and I was a little shocked by the small numbers of opposition that were actually here. I was expecting the place to be packed with vocal opponents and it was not, and I was very pleased with the manner in which everyone conducted themselves. ... I think as more information gets out ... we’ll see more and more support.”
Prior to the town hall beginning, John Loud, president of Kennesaw-based Loud Security Systems, who has spearheaded the effort to rally the business community in support of bringing the Braves to Cobb County, was out front handing out T-shirts emblazoned with “Cobb: Home of the Braves.”
Cobb Chamber of Commerce staffers lined the entrance to the senior center wearing those T-shirts and holding signs of support in favor of the move.
As residents took their seats, one group began to chant “Hell no!” prompting Loud to lead a much larger group to chant the “Tomahawk Chop,” drowning out the opposition.
For and against
Ericka Totten, who works in advertising and lives in a town home adjacent to the site of the proposed stadium, was among those wearing a Cobb: Home of the Braves shirt.
Totten said since the stadium is going to be in her backyard, she turned out to learn as much as she could about the proposal, such as how it would impact her property’s value and what the plans were for transportation. In general, Totten said she supports the deal.
“I am a fan of just the development that’s coming in the neighborhood,” she said. “You know, that’s kind of my lifestyle, the shops, the restaurants, and I had to go downtown, and now it’s going to be in my backyard. I’m going to have the best of both worlds.”
Elizabeth Reside of Marietta, a registered nurse who held a sign that read “Hell No!,” said she opposes the deal.
“No. 1, Tim Lee is going to extend the park bonds that were to expire in 2017 and 2018 for 30 years. Oh, hell no,” Reside said.
Reside said the stadium would also cause terrible traffic congestion.
“I drive that way every day to and from work — total gridlock,” she said. “They need to put this out in the country where it will not affect people. This is a private business that they’re expecting taxpayers to pay for and I am fuming, and this is another example of the good old boys making the deals under the table and then springing it on us. I’m hopping mad.”
With Commissioners Helen Goreham and Lisa Cupid seated behind him on the stage, County Chairman Tim Lee gave an overview of the proposal the Board of Commissioners will vote on this Tuesday, which involves the Braves building a $672 million stadium and accompanying $400 million mixed-use development down the road from the Cumberland Mall, all set to open in 2017.
Lee and Goreham then opened up the floor for questions.
Why the rush?
Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University was among those in the audience, said the 25 people who asked questions and made statements were evenly divided on the issue.
“But the people in the hall, it seems like the majority are for it, judging from they’re wearing Braves’ jerseys, they’re applauding when something positive is said by the commissioners. And so I think most of the people who got up to ask a question either were neutral or were split 50/50,” he said.
The evening was a chance for Cobb citizens to have their voices heard and get their questions answered, and for the most part, Swint believes Lee and Goreham did a good job of accomplishing that task.
“I think the weak spot was Chairman Lee not really giving a very good explanation as to why you can’t delay the vote for four weeks,” Swint said. “Delaying the vote for four weeks is not going to kill the deal; that’s just not believable. I don’t see what it would hurt to delay for four weeks just to give people more of an opportunity to be heard and feel like there’s more community buy-in that it’s not being rushed through.”
Cupid is concerned
Walking back to her car after the meeting, Commissioner Cupid said the speed in which she is being asked to vote does not please her.
“We have taken more time to vet less serious and less significant matters for the county,” Cupid said.
“I’m blown away, absolutely blown away, by the lack of time we’re dedicating to scrutinizing such a significant commitment that we’re going to take over the next 30 years. I don’t think the amount of time that we’re giving is reflective of the length of time and money that we’re going to have to invest in this project.”
Among those who asked questions was Jim Astuto of east Cobb, who asked if it’s such a great deal, why doesn’t Liberty Media pay the full cost? Astuto referenced President Obama and the Solyndra controversy.
“Here we have the government get in the private business and what happened?” Astuto said. “What I’m really concerned about is I really support the Braves coming to Cobb, I think it’s a great idea, but they ought to pay their own way especially when the Cobb County employee pension fund is underfunded by $400 million. I know you guys don’t have anything to do with the school district, but the kids are furloughed five days of the year. And you guys continue to raid the Water Authority every year for $17 million.”
Astuto asked Goreham what makes her think that the county can afford to pay $300 million in the Braves’ deal.
Goreham answered by saying, “Cobb County government is not on the hook for $300 million. We are investing approximately $8.9 million per year into this project.”
Such is the nature of a public-private partnership, she said, referencing the managed lanes project on Interstate-75.
“It is a way to address huge projects and also the fact that financing and looking at those finances you have to look at them in various ways,” Goreham said. “Again, Cobb County is not on the hook for $300 million. Those businesses and those activities in the Cumberland CID area, those that will benefit the most from this opportunity will also be providing finances within this deal.”
Who’s crunching the numbers?
Hunter Hamilton of Marietta asked since the county government doesn’t have the experience of negotiating a deal for building a Major League Baseball stadium, would it be hiring a consultant who specializes in such contracts?
“Or are we going to rely on the county employees to get some on-the-job training to spend $1 billion?” Hamilton asked.
Lee acknowledged while the county’s more than 4,000 employees were some of the best in the region, none had experience building a project of this size.
“What we will do is make sure that there is a team in place that will be monitoring our best interests, not part of the Braves, not part of whoever the investors are that initially come in and do the private part of it, but we will have to bring someone on that has expertise in this to oversee the entire project to make sure our interests are protected every single month along the way,” Lee said.
Hamilton asked if such a team was in place now.
“Yeah, we’ve had a wonderful team of subject matter experts from the financing and projection part of it, part of the team that has put the (memorandum of understanding) together, so yes, we have,” Lee said. “I hand selected the team based on their experience in putting those kinds of programs together.”
Lee declined to release the names of people who are on that team, however, saying some volunteered for the job, and he wanted to ask if they were comfortable being identified.
Joel Foster, Georgia Communications and Grassroots Director for Americans for Prosperity, said his organization opposes the deal, believing it is not role of government to get involved in the private sector.
Foster asked about the bonds for parkland, which voters approved, and which are set to expire in 2017 and 2018. The county is paying those bonds off with a .33 millage rate. When the bonds are paid off, Lee’s plan is to keep that .33 millage on the books for another 30 years to pay off the new stadium bonds.
“My question is this bond as we understand it as taxpayers in Cobb was set to expire in 2017,” Foster said. “How does this not constitute an extension of that bond which ultimately involves more tax dollars overtime?”
Goreham called that an excellent question.
“There will not be any shifting of funds presently up until 2017 and that is when this bond expires,” Goreham said. “When this bond expires, that .33 is a millage rate issue, which becomes a budgetary issue for the Board of Commissioners, so in 2017, when we discuss our budget, we will have to address the .33 mills in the form of budget consideration which by normal procedure and by law we will have to have two public hearings for our budget, so that’s how it will be handled by law and administratively.”
Yet Foster said the millage would have gone away when the parkland bonds were paid off in 2017.
“What would have been a tax cut at that point would constitute an extension of what we already have,” he said.
“No, it is existing millage which the board addresses within the confines of a biannual budget and that’s how it will be addressed because legally it is a millage rate,” she said.
Summing up the evening, Goreham told the MDJ, “The striking point here was what appeared to be more of a support group than opponents to the proposal.”
And as for Tuesday’s big decision, Goreham said she was ready to act.
“I think we’re all ready to vote on Tuesday, which is my hope,” she said.