Cobb residents take challenge of nearly $400 million in Braves stadium bonds to Georgia Supreme Court
- Atlanta Braves
- "Is a stadium that the public gets to use for three events each year a public stadium?"
The Atlanta Braves' new stadium in Cobb County is expected to be finished in 2017. That completion date is contingent upon there being no major delays such as, yep, you guessed it, lawsuits. And Braves officials and their government partners are currently facing three legal challenges from Cobb residents who want to block the county's use of nearly $400 million of public money to build the new ballpark.
Cobb residents Larry Savage, T. Tucker Hobgood, and Gary Pelphrey (on behalf of Richard Pellegrino) today presented oral arguments to the Georgia Supreme Court challenging the issuance of $397 million in bonds to pay for the bulk of the Braves' shiny new $622 million stadium. As part of the agreement, the county would fork over $25 million in annual debt payments. To help with those installments, the Braves have agreed to pay $6.1 million in yearly licensing fees for the first 30 years of the agreement.
The residents argued that a local trial judge improperly validated the issuance of stadium bonds from the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority to Cobb County in July 2014. The three residents — who each challenged different elements of the bond issuance made through an intergovernmental contract — claimed the deal violated the Georgia Constitution. Voters should have decided in a referendum whether the bonds should be approved, they said.
Their lawsuits also took issue with the use of taxpayer dollars for a stadium that would have limited public benefit. Hobgood said that the deal would allow public money to help fund the construction of a facility designed for a private sports club. SunTrust Park, he said, should not receive taxpayer cash because it fell outside the legal definition of a "park" or "recreational area."
"SunTrust Park is obviously a private facility," Hobgood told reporters after the arguments. "The public doesn't even know how much SunTrust paid for the naming rights. What kind of public facility is that? In fact, if you look at the underlying agreement, the public is generally going to be excluded."
Thomas Curvin, an attorney arguing on behalf of the county and authority, said the bonds were properly validated under the intergovernmental contract and the judge's ruling did not violate the Georgia Constitution. To not allow the bond issuance, he said, would go against years of prior legal rulings.
Under the operating agreement, Curvin said county officials have the ability to use the stadium for up to three events, or up to 10 days, each year. He also said the authority would remain the owner of the stadium until the county completed its payments. The Braves, which would manage the facility on a daily basis, could later purchase the stadium for 50 percent of fair market value.
Regarding the definition of a "public facility," Curvin said that an admission fee didn't stop the public from using other facilities like Stone Mountain, Fulton County tennis courts, or some state parks. SunTrust Park would be similar, he said.
"The Webster's Dictionary definition of recreation includes: 'Refreshment of strength and spirits after work; a means of refreshment or diversion,'" Curvin told the court. "We submit that attending the national pastime, going to watch a baseball game, is quintessentially a form of recreation in this country."
The Georgia Supreme Court is expected to make a decision before the middle of July. Authority attorney Kevin Moore told reporters afterward that Cobb officials, Braves execs, and his client would find another way of getting a deal done If the court tosses out the agreement.