BRADENTON, Fla. — Major and minor league baseball teams are making pitches around the Southeast to score new ballparks with surrounding mixed-use entertainment districts to enhance the fan experience — and revenue stream — in and outside of the game.
From Atlanta to Florida and Nashville, teams are pushing forward with new stadium projects and expecting public support as the region's economy continues to improve.
What seems to be a cyclical process — pro sports teams seeking public funds for new digs — coincides with what one analyst has said about such deals: that elected officials and the public tend to support such efforts when there's a better economic environment.
The most recent project was announced Monday by the Atlanta Braves.
The team said it will leave Turner Field in downtown Atlanta for a new $672 million stadium and mixed-use project in nearby Cobb County where it has already secured a large tract of property.
The site is about 14 miles northwest of Turner Field at an intersection of Interstate 75 and I-285, where hotels, restaurants, retail outlets, and other entertainment options are planned along with the stadium.
"We think this is going to be a remarkable, positive development on all sides," Braves president John Schuerholz told MLB.com. "It will make it far greater for our fans with a far more enjoyable experience. It should be successful."
Little is known about the project or how it will be financed other than what the team released, and controversy has ensued.
To some, except those closely involved in quiet negotiations, the announcement came as a shock.
Atlanta Mayor Kasin Reed said the city had been working with the Braves "for a long time, and at the end of the day there was simply no way the team was going to stay in downtown Atlanta without city taxpayers spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make that happen.
"It is my understanding that our neighbor, Cobb County, made a strong offer of $450 million in public support to the Braves, and we are simply unwilling to match that with taxpayer dollars," he added.
Gilt-edged Cobb County has yet to address the stadium project publicly or release any documents about the public contribution or if it will be bond financed.
Cobb spokesman Ronald Quigley would not confirm Reed's figure, and said he did not know where it came from.
"The County Commission chairman and Atlanta Braves and the economic development folks at the Chamber of Commerce hammered out a memorandum of understanding for the county to participate in this deal," he said. "We expect something in the next couple of days, and once the agreement comes to us it will go before the County Commission for a vote."
Once the terms of the deal are made public, he said, "We will try to explain the best we can the benefits and costs."
The MOU reportedly will be presented to the Cobb County Commission on Nov. 26. At that time, the councils would be asked to approve the financing, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
On Tuesday, several Atlanta City Council members said at a press conference they were not included in the city's negotiations with the Braves, and made suggestions for bond financing the stadium.
"We haven't been briefed by the mayor, we have not been included in the negotiations but these are concepts that are bantered around city hall all the time," said council member Michael Julian Bond, who added that the board would like to sit down with the team "and ask them to come back to the table and stay at home here at Turner Field."
Bond said he had heard that negotiations included seeking a bond referendum to finance a portion of the new stadium. He also suggested that the council could consider using half of a local one-cent sales tax, which is currently dedicated to funding the city's sewer system, to issue bonds and finance infrastructure needs around the city, including the stadium. That would require approval from the Legislature.
Council woman Carla Smith said discussions are under way about whether the council should appoint a task force to examine the stadium issues.
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said in a statement that he was "deeply disappointed" to hear that the Braves were leaving Atlanta and Fulton County, which has been their home since 1966.
"We must work together to do everything fiscally possible to keep the Braves in Fulton County and the City of Atlanta," said Eaves.
Turner Field was originally built as the 85,000-seat main stadium for Atlanta's 1996 Summer Olympics, and immediately afterward was converted into a ballpark for the Braves, who began playing there in 1997.It is owned by the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, which has leased Turner Field to the Braves through 2016.
Neither Atlanta or the Recreation Authority responded to requests about whether bonds remain to be paid off for Turner Field. Some debt was issued for improvements over the years. The Braves pay the authority a $500,000 operating fee and a $630,034 naming rights fee. Reed has said he expects to demolish what will then be a 20-year-old stadium soon after the Braves depart.
One rung lower in triple-A level baseball, the Nashville Sounds are also on the path toward getting a new stadium.
On Monday, the Nashville Sports Authority signed off on a plan sponsored by Mayor Karl Dean to finance a new stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers' minor league affiliate.
If the deal is approved by the Nashville City Council Nov. 19, the Sports Authority would issue $65 million of 30-year revenue bonds.
Proceeds would be used to pay $23 million to the state for the land and $37 million to build an 8,500-seat stadium and parking.
The bonds would be secured by lease payments from the team, sales taxes collected on site, tax-increment financing, and potentially property tax revenue from an adjacent mixed-use development planned by the Sounds and a separate residential development.
The Sounds would lease the ballpark for 30 years under terms of the deal.
Dean is fast-tracking the project to finalize property and financing agreements before the end of the year to have the new stadium open in 2015.
In north-central Florida, the city of Ocala has inked a deal to steal the New York Yankees' Class A Minor League Team from Tampa.
The agreement, which is contingent on the city building a 4,000-seat stadium, obligates the team to play in Ocala for at least 25 years.
The council has asked Marion County to hold a referendum by March 31 to ask local voters to approve a ½-cent local sales tax increase, which would remain in effect for five years.
Up to $60 million of sales tax revenues would be used to buy land, build a stadium, and make surrounding infrastructure improvements for the team and an entertainment complex that would include a hotel, several multipurpose fields for community use, retail and tourist attractions, an exhibit hall, and parking.
Ocala is exploring options for leveraging the sales tax and other revenues with bonds.
The Toronto Blue Jays reportedly are negotiating for a new spring training location in the Sunshine state. The team currently plays in Dunedin but has signed a letter of intent to explore the possibility of moving to Palm Beach Gardens.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays continue to explore options for getting out of Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg. The domed stadium often gets the blame for the Rays' longstanding struggles to draw fans despite regularly fielding playoff contending teams. The Trop was converted from a multi-use facility to bring the Rays to the city as an expansion team. Their lease runs through 2027, and some debt sold to convert the facility remains outstanding.
St. Petersburg Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman, who won the office Nov. 5, has said he prefers for the team to remain in the city and a major expansion of transportation options would improve attendance.
"If the Rays simply do not want to be here any longer, then they should be given the opportunity to pay an exploratory fee in order to look at other locations, provided those locations are in the Tampa Bay area," Kriseman said on his election website. "Throughout the negotiating process I will ensure that our taxpayers are protected."
Relocating the team to Tampa, or a location nearer that city, has been studied.