Jan. 19, 2011
Like a monster from a cheesy 1980s horror film, we learned last Friday that the downtown ballpark may not be dead after all. It's Baaaaaaaaaaack! Negotiations over a "creative financing package" for a proposed new downtown ballpark for The Augusta Green Jackets at the former Georgia Golf hall of Fame have been mostly stalled since the commission voted last June to allow Fred Russell to have "talks" with officials from Ripken Baseball. But the recent news on the merger of GHSU and ASU seems to have resurrected the downtown ballpark....for now.
For the past 5 years, Mayor Copenhaver and Ripken Baseball have been coveting the riverfront real-estate that was once home to the ill-fated and Ill-conceived Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and Gardens. For the last several years, the gardens have become a weed infested eyesore. According to the mayor, something just has to be done with it! But the public has remained solidly opposed to another taxpayer funded boondoggle at the site. A Democratic primary straw poll a few years back showed that 77% opposed public financing for a new downtown ballpark.
But in his appeal to get commissioners to agree to allow Fred Russell to have negotiations with Ripken Baseball last year, the mayor said that a public referendum on the ballpark could be circumvented with "creative financing". One example he cited was the TAD financing used to lure Costco to the Villages at Riverwatch site. Indeed, TAD (Tax Allocation District) financing can be used without a public vote, but to say that it doesn't present risks to the taxpayers is disingenuous. The original idea for TADs was to help attract large scale employers like manufacturing plants to economically depressed areas. TAD would freeze property taxes for the development as though there were no improvements for a certain number of years. Also, the local government will generally make necessary infrastructure improvements for the development.
The city is betting that in the long run the new development will have a big payoff by increasing the values of surrounding properties. But as we have told you in previous stories, ballparks are risky and rarely yield the promised economic benefits that their proponents hype. And even Costco is a poor example for use of TAD. As primarily a retail operation, it merely shifted business from other local stores, like Sam's Club. It's not the same as a manufacturing facility that will make products that will be sold outside the area, thus drawing outside money into the area. It also gives Costco an unfair advantage not available to other retailers (their incentive plan also allowed them to keep the first $10 million in sales taxes collected). And the location of Costco, on prime I-20 fronting real-estate in West Augusta (which is hardly starved for retail options) flies in the face of the intended use of TADs, which was to attract development to blighted or economically depressed areas. Critics argue that if generous TAD financing and sales tax incentives were going to be given to Costco, the stipulation should have been for them to locate in South Augusta, where retail options are extremely limited. The same could be said for a new ballpark. The number of jobs it will create will be minimal and prime riverfront real-estate hardly qualifies under TAD as a blighted location.
Now the Mayor and Fred Russell are saying that the new proposal for the ballpark will include no city "tax" money. But that doesn't mean that it may not include TAD financing or other tax incentives that will increase risk to the tax payer, or other risky financing options like revenue bonds. Voters would have to approve a General Obligation bond, but not revenue bonds. The latter would still put taxpayers at risk though if the expected revenue projections do not pan out, and they rarely do with ballparks. We told you last fall how the city of Aberdeen, MD continues to take hundreds of thousands out of its general fund every year to service debt on Ripken Stadium, because stadium revenues are not enough. So this may be all a matter of semantics with Russell and Copenhaver claiming that now city taxes will not be used to pay for constructing the stadium. That may be true, but often it's simply that the bill simply comes later.
What is most disturbing is that Fred Russell has been a principal player in these negotiations despite his poor track record of keeping commissioners in the loop and negotiating deals that seem to be more in the interest of others rather than the taxpayers. Who can forget Fred Russell's handling of the $12 million parking deck on Reynolds Street? First he tells commissioners the land was to be donated, then later he hatches a deal with 933 Broad Investment LLC for them to retain ownership of the land, without telling commissioners of the change in the deal. In this same deal the city also made a questionable land swap for a small corner 0.07 acre parcel, vastly over paying for it, thus inflating the land values under the deck, which the city still did not own. It also did not make much sense for the city to engage in a convoluted land swap for just one small parcel when the rest of the land under the deck would still be owned by Broad Investment, LLC. Commissioners recently voted to hire a forensic auditor to look into the questionable land deals that Russell engineered over the $12 million parking deck.
Also don't forget that when the commissioners voted to give Russell more authority in personnel and restructuring of the government, he took that as an opportunity to give select employees raises, when most commissioners were looking for more belt tightening. But now we are all supposed to trust Fred Russell in negotiating a deal for a new downtown ballpark?
Then there are other questions:
First, how involved have administrators from GHSU and ASU been in negotiations over the ballpark? Last Friday, Russell and Ripken Baseball representatives met with an administrator from GHSU, though not university President Ricardo Azziz. It appears this "proposal" was hatched at the last minute when word came that the two universities would be merged. Or was Fred Russell aware of the merger before other local leaders, and did he relay this information to Ripken Baseball officials and Jacoby Development weeks before?
Secondly, How does a minor league ballpark factor into expansion for this new merged university? Dr Azziz has previously stated that he envisions the state owned Golf and Gardens site for research. Expanded student housing has also been mentioned as a possible use for the site. But a baseball stadium would consume a large portion of the site. Only ASU has a noticeable athletics program, with sports facilities located on Wrightsboro Rd, including a baseball field. Also, minor league baseball and collegiate baseball seasons coincide with one another, so how could a new downtown ballpark be used by both the Green Jackets and this new University? And a minor league baseball park is not exactly a suitable venue for soccer or football, if there are plans to add those programs to the athletics department of the new merged university. What incentive is there for the new university to cede a large portion of downtown real-estate for a new minor league ballpark?
Lastly, if this is a deal to be negotiated with the administrators of the new university, the State of Georgia, and Ripken baseball, with no financial commitment from the city, then why is Fred Russell acting as the designated hitter putting all of this together? Commissioners say they were taken off guard by Russell's announcement on the ballpark proposal last week. Radio talker Austin Rhodes characterizes it as Russell "Going Rogue." Sure, commissioners did vote to task Fred Russell to enter negotiations with Ripken Baseball last June. Grady Smith said back then that he voted only for "talks". At the time Mayor Copenhaver assured commissioners that the vote was merely to get Ripken Baseball to tell the city what its plans were and how much they were willing to bring to the table.
But that was more six months ago and still no word from Ripken Baseball of what their financial commitment would be in this project. And now Russell has brought university leaders into the process. We are still not sure if this is just a "pitch" to Dr. Azziz, hoping that he will take a swing at it. But all indications are that this proposal is just as much a surprise to him as it was to everyone else last Friday. Also, does this proposal come with the expectation of a significant state investment into the facility? It does seem rather crafty to exploit the university merger as a means to gain control of the Golf and Gardens site. There's no telling what new verbiage will emerge to describe this proposed "multi-purpose" ballpark to get state taxpayers to pay for it. Notice that the news reports have not ruled out "state taxes". Can the State of Georgia afford to sink millions of more dollars into another boondoggle on the Augusta riverfront after the debacles of the Golf and Gardens and Fort Discovery? Is this all just wishful thinking on the part of Ripken Baseball and stadium proponents?
But as we have told you before, language can be tweaked to make it seem like something is different from what it really is. "Creative financing."... "Revenue Neutral"... "Multi-purpose stadium."... Even earlier today the Mayor announced that he is calling his $100,000 Ministry of Propaganda a "Collaboration Center."
It's time once and for all for Ripken Baseball to come forward with a proposal.. one that outlines what their financial commitment will be in plain English, not buried under convoluted double-speak and "buzz-words". After more than 5 years of having this ballpark proposal hanging over our heads, it's what the public deserves And can we really trust Fred Russell to negotiate another real-estate deal in the best interest of the taxpayers? In any case, this seems like a bad movie that will never end.***
Below is the video that members of ACAVE presented before the commission last July concerning the ballpark negotiations:
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