If you thought the Braves’ move to Cobb County would leave just Cobb taxpayers on the hook, think again. The team’s execs may seek millions more in tax credits from the state — largesse that would be underwritten by all Georgians.
Tax incentives could tip the scales of the project toward majority-public financing. Braves boosters have been emphasizing that the ballclub would pay more than half of the estimated $672 stadium costs. They’ve even distributed a handy graphic of a baseball bearing the words “Braves 55%.” But if even $12 million in state tax credits comes through, the team’s share of the currently projected cost would fall to less than half.
While it's too soon to know exactly how much the Braves might seek, a document obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act shows that negotiators for Cobb County and the Braves considered funding packages that included up to $60 million in state tax credits on top of the $300 million in county funding.
The current financing plan, in fact, is built on the assumption that state tax incentives and/or reduced construction costs for parking could trim the Braves' obligation by up to $50 million. Parking construction is projected to cost $32 million, but executives hope to reduce that by leasing spaces in nearby office and shopping developments.
Georgia’s economic development agency offers about a dozen tax incentives to businesses expanding or relocating within Georgia, based on job creation, a major investment and other factors. Braves executive vice president Mike Plant said the team doesn't know just yet which ones it might go after.
"Once we get into a final design over the next six to nine months, when we really start pulling together all of the details of the construction, that’s when I think we’ll start seeing that," Plant said in an interview last week. The Braves had been looking at many of those same state incentives to help with renovations if they had chosen to remain at their current home in downtown Atlanta.
"We’ve had conversations with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce," Plant said. "We were having discussions with them well over a year ago about what we could do potentially here at Turner Field. Those things [incentives] exist here as well."
Those job-creation and energy efficiency incentives, which can offset half or more of a company's state income tax liability, are available to any qualifying project.
Plant mentioned the possibility of another incentive, created especially for new tourism destinations, that can be granted only by the governor. If the team were approved for the program, it could earn the Braves a 10-year rebate on all sales taxes it collected at the new stadium – perhaps $20 million.
Longtime state government reporter Tom Crawford noted in an October 2012 newspaper column that governor Nathan Deal had expressed concerns about other projects that had inquired about the tourism tax break. In one case, Crawford reported, Deal's office was reluctant to offer the break for a hotel that would be competing with others that didn't get the incentive.
A major league baseball stadium, though, could be regarded quite differently.
"We think we are [different], since 30 percent of our fans come from outside the state of Georgia and spend a lot of money here," Braves executive vice president Derek Schiller said.
On the other hand, the Braves at Turner Field are already a tourist destination. It's not clear whether relocating the same team to a new stadium a mere fourteen miles away would meet the governor's approval as a new tourist draw.
That rebate of both state and local sales taxes would reduce the immediate benefits to Cobb County, which says its investment in the Braves will net an additional $3.2 million a year in tax revenue. An economic analysis conducted for the Cobb Chamber of Commerce estimated the new stadium would generate a total of $910,000 in sales taxes during construction and more than $1.7 million annually after that.
The bottom line: No one really knows what the bottom line will be for state and local taxpayers once the Braves take the field on Opening Day 2017. Braves and business boosters promised Cobb residents the rosiest of outcomes if they subsidized the club’s new stadium. Only now, after a lightning-quick approval process, can Cobb taxpayers — and the rest of us — ask informed questions about the financial fallout.
Atlanta magazine has engaged investigative journalist Jim Walls to examine the transparency and financial implications of the Atlanta Braves' planned move to Cobb County. Read hundreds of investigative posts on a wide range of other topics at Walls’s website, Atlanta Unfiltered.