I’d Like to Play Poker with These Guys

I don’t play poker. I’ve tried a few times, but I had to give it up. It’s the human element that gets me. I am so easy to read that I might as well turn my cards around so everyone can see them. But, even I could bluff the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners.

One part of the agreement that hasn’t gotten much attention is that the County is responsible for the capital maintenance of the stadium. Tim Tucker explains the details in the AJC.

The agreement requires Gwinnett County, which will own the stadium, to pay for all capital maintenance, improvements and repairs. An attachment to the agreement provides a long list of examples of Gwinnett’s responsibilities — everything from seats to scoreboards, from structural components to repainting.

The deal requires the county to maintain a minimum balance of $500,000 in a capital maintenance fund, with the amount to increase over time. Because all revenue Gwinnett receives from the stadium and a new rental-car tax likely will go toward paying off the $33 million the county will borrow to build the ballpark, the county probably will have to find the capital-fund money elsewhere. County Administrator Jock Connell said that, if not from excess revenue, it could come from Gwinnett Convention & Visitors Bureau funds.

This is the same Jock Connell who insisted, “we anticipate it paying for itself from day one.” Yet, once again, we see more Gwinnett tax dollars coming to the aid of poor Liberty Media shareholders. But, it gets even better.

Moreover, the agreement makes clear that the $500,000 minimum balance is not a cap on the county’s annual obligation to keep up the stadium.

There is no cap, nor at this point a detailed projection of what the costs might be over time. The Braves will submit an annual list of proposed expenditures, subject to county approval.

How did the Braves pull this off? Apparently, the Braves said they wouldn’t commit to a 30-year lease—and in fact they still have not—without this concession.

The Braves initially offered to sign only a 15-year lease. Gwinnett countered that the agreement had to run for 30 years because construction would be financed with 30-year bonds. The Braves relented to a 30-year lease, with provisions that the county fund all capital improvements needed over time and that the Braves have an escape clause if the stadium were to deteriorate significantly.

That means the county will be on the hook not just for paying off the debt, but also for future costs to keep Braves minor leaguers in the stadium beyond 2023.

“One of the things the Braves were real sensitive about was not finding themselves, 20 years down the road, in a situation like in Richmond,” said Gwinnett County Commissioner Bert Nasuti, a driving force behind the deal.

Oh, boo who: how terrible that the Braves might have a majority of their facility expenditures covered by someone else for a paltry 20 years! Perhaps Braves officials became wise to the desperation of Commissioner Bert Nasuti as he virtually prostrated himself at their feet handing away even the concessions revenues to the county’s own events.

The out-clause doesn’t set a high bar for terminating the lease.

The deal then gives the Braves the option of terminating at any point after the 2023 season if the team and the county “are unable to reach agreement . . . with respect to any item to be included within Capital Maintenance and Repairs . . . and which is material to the operation of the stadium or otherwise unreasonably interferes” with use of the stadium.

Both sides say the wording is intended to give the Braves an escape only in a worst-case scenario.

“It’s just to make sure that if the stadium wasn’t being kept up to a standard and started falling into disrepair, there’s an out,” the Braves’ Plant said. “I don’t see that happening, but in this day and age, you need to protect yourself.”

What does “up to a standard” really mean? It’s hard to say, but don’t be surprised if the Braves expect more than new curtains. In 1990, MLB agreed to Attachment 58, which required its minor league baseball stadiums to meet new minimum standards of stadium size and quality. It was a list of unfunded mandates, and many teams used these standards demand more funds from host communities.

What is new and state-of-art today may be outdated in 15 years, especially when it comes to sports stadiums. As a junior high student in Charlotte, I remember when the Charlotte Coliseum was unveiled with much fanfare about its future prospects in 1988. It would host the Charlotte Hornets and boasted the world’s largest indoor scoreboard at the time—it crashed to the floor before the first game, an ominous sign of things to come. After selling out 358 consecutive NBA games and hosting the NBA All-Star Game (1991) and the NCAA Final Four (1994), the building began to show its age, due to is lack of luxury amenities. Hornets owner George Shinn wanted a new arena. He didn’t get it; thus, the Hornets left for New Orleans in 2002 and the arena was demolished just last year.

I hope that Gwinnett heeds the experience of its neighbor up I-85 when it crafts the words in the final contract. Because, in 15 years, one side is going to have all of the bargaining power. The Braves have territorial rights over Gwinnett County, and the team can prevent any other MLB-affiliated minor league club from playing in the area. As I say in the story,

“A 15-year out clause is not abnormal,” said J.C. Bradbury, a Kennesaw State University sports economist who has been a critic of the Gwinnett deal. “But it certainly is problematic for Gwinnett in this case because basically you have a stadium that serves one and only one tenant.”

Don’t think that the Braves won’t flex their muscles in 15 years. And who can blame them? The County Commission has given the Braves everything they asked for, possibly more.

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