Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sarasota: "Braves Stadium Will Totally Pay for Itself, Trust Us!"

When Sarasota County's director of economic development, Jeff Maultsby, told a group of journalists Monday that a $21+ million investment in a new Braves spring training stadium would pay for itself with new tourism revenues, my 10News WTSP colleague, photojournalist Tim Burquest, decided to ask where he got the return-on-investment information.

This is what happened next:

Maultsby struggled to answer a series of questions on the topic, and when Burquest made a request Monday for the public documents that would contain such tourism revenue projections, none were produced. On Tuesday, the county informed us that no such documents existed.

Maultsby suggested during the Monday press conference that a new Braves stadium would draw more Georgia tourists, who might typically frequent the Panhandle, down to Sarasota County. The $75 million stadium hinges on the state contributing $20 million, which might not be the easiest sell, especially to lawmakers who may

RELATED: Why you should never believe an economic impact report

10Investigates has been fighting for public records and transparency for months, which may have helped the county preserve some taxpayer leverage in the recently-announced stadium deal.

You can read other spring training-related documents on Sarasota County's website here.

But one document you won't find on the county's site is the guarantee that the Orioles will build their promised Cal Ripken Jr. youth baseball academy, as promised when they got tens of millions in stadium subsidies from the county in 2009.  That's because the county failed to get it in writing.  The academy was never built.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Maybe Sarasota Was Listening When I Warned Them About Those Crafty MLB Teams

County officials are unveiling the proposed framework for a deal to build the Atlanta Braves a new spring training stadium home in North Port, and many recent changes to the language in the proposal reflect warnings about tax dollars issued by WTSP-TV earlier this month. The team is planning on relocating to North Port if it can finalize a $75.4 million stadium deal, financed by three different government entities and a private developer.

Taxpayers across the country often has little insight as to the private negotiations between local governments, developers, and professional teams prior to the execution of a deal. But 10Investigates fought to obtain draft negotiating documents under Florida’s public records laws, and published a list of some risks the Braves and a North Port developer were looking for the county to take on in the deal.

Some of those risks appear to have been eliminated by the county during recent negotiations, including language that left Sarasota County on the hook for any potential cost overruns, and an option for the Braves to buy out of their contract after only 20 years in North Port.

New language was also added that guarantees the county use of the stadium, otherwise controlled at all times by the Braves, for up to 10 non-profit events each year.

But other potential concessions to the team remain in the proposed agreement, including annual county subsidies for capital improvements to the stadium. The county has similar language in its contract with the Baltimore Orioles, who train in Sarasota.

The letter of intent commissioners will discuss Tuesday also calls on the county to take ownership of the stadium from the developer while an MLB team (or teams) call it home, then giving it back to the developer afterward. That means the county is essentially borrowing the property for the purpose of helping the Braves avoid the typical property taxes that most other local businesses and homeowners pay in Sarasota County.

A county spokesperson added Sarasota has ad valorem tax exemption program for qualifying businesses that is not just limited to professional sports.

The developer and Braves are also asking to be exempt from sales taxes on construction material, another concession that most local businesses and homeowners would not be afforded.

The proposal also allows the Braves to retain all revenues from the stadium, but exempts them from having to pay Sarasota County any rent for the first 30 years of their stay there, instead paying only $2.0-$2.5 million per year to the developer to help pay off the corporation’s debt service on the stadium. One initial draft version called for annual payments between $3.75 and $4.5 million.

Sarasota County also stands to gain from a promotional partnership with the Braves, but the proposed contract only requires the Braves to “work with the county” on an annual plan. As the county learned the hard way with its Baltimore Orioles spring stadium negotiations, if it isn’t in writing, promises don’t count.

Sarasota County commissioners will discuss the letter of intent for the $75.4 million, 6,500-seat North Port stadium - and the $21.3 million desired in county funding - Tuesday morning at their regular meeting.

A message left with the Braves had not yet been returned Monday.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

House Speaker Says "Zero" Chance Bucs Get State Subsidies This Year

Florida Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, told me last week that there was "zero" chance the Buccaneers get the roughly $10 million in state subsidies they're seeking for their ongoing Raymond James Stadium renovations, even though they are the only professional team seeking money from the state this year: Here's more on the "scheme" he's referring to, that made it easier for pro sports teams to get multi-million-dollar tax breaks. Ironically, a conservative legislature has still denied the funding every year since the law changed. 2017 looks to be no different, thanks to Corcoran and some like-minded counterparts of his in the Senate.

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A Few Tweets Following Disclosure of Rays' Cash to Kriseman Campaign

Following several years of controversy as he tried to help the Rays explore their options in Hillsborough, St. Petersburg's mayor collected on a little bit of the debt:
It doesn't look like that even includes the $1,000 each from Rays presidents Brian Auld and Matthew Silverman, so the total from the team and executives appears to be even higher.  We're still waiting, however, to hear anything of consequence from the Rays.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Secret Documents Reveal What Braves are Asking From Sarasota

After a protracted public records battle with Sarasota County, I finally obtained public records exchanged between the county and the Atlanta Braves that reveal several concessions the major league team appears to be seeking from the county during negotiations over its future spring training home.
Sarasota County had previously claimed the records were confidential, but 10Investigates pressed county leaders on their “trade secrets” public records exemption to obtain several draft agreements between the two parties over the past two years.

The county says it has not agreed to any of the terms of the deal yet, other than contributing bed tax revenues to a new stadium, making annual contributions to a capital improvements fund, and assuming ownership of the facility after construction is completed.
But comparing the Braves’ initial letter of intent to its most recent letter, several significant changes were made during the course of negotiations for their proposed deal:
  • A "community benefits" clause was removed from the agreement, which would have allowed Sarasota County to host public meetings, conventions, conferences, non-profit events, and amateur sporting events at the facility when the Braves were not using it. However, a county representative says that is a non-negotiable.
  • A "construction materials sales taxes" clause was added, asking Sarasota County to use "reasonable best efforts" to ensure construction materials will be exempt from state and local sales taxes. However, that may run afoul of state law since the county will not be the owner of the facility during construction.
  • A clause was added to ensure the Braves "shall have no obligation to provide its financials to (the county) or any other third party during the term of such debt."
  • A "cost overruns" clause was added to require Sarasota County to pick up an additional $20 million in project financing if state financing cannot be secured. However, a county representative says there is "no deal" without the state funding.
  • The Braves also got the county to agree to contribute a yet-to-be-disclosed annual amount to a capital improvement fund for repairs and replacements to the facility and surrounding player housing. In original drafts, the team was responsible for all capital improvements.
  • The county will also be asked to ban street vendors within half a mile of the ballpark.
Sarasota learned the hard way in 2009, while negotiating with the Orioles, that anything not in writing is far from guaranteed. 10Investigates exposed how a promised Cal Ripken youth facility was never delivered because the county never got it in writing.
Other notable clauses in the latest draft contract sent to the county:
  • The county would assume ownership of the facility, but provide the Braves with year-round control of the facility. This insures the team will not have to pay property taxes.
  • The Braves also retain "all revenues" from events held at the "public" facility, including parking on county property.
  • The Braves will pay for the day-to-day maintenance and operating expenses to operate the facility.
  • The Braves will pay the developer somewhere between $3.75 million and $4.5 million per year for rent, but according to documents, the team "wants to make no up-front capital contribution to development/construction of the Facility."
  • The 30-year lease is actually a 20-year lease, since the Braves can opt out anytime in the final 10 years of the contract, provided they give the county 12 months' notice and pay off any outstanding public debt (if any still exists) on the project. Here's more on the 2014 state law that made it easier for MLB teams to break spring training leases.
The project is estimated to be complete by January 2018 and is expected to be financed by four parties:
  • The West Villages is donating $7 to $9 million worth of land, plus $12 to $20 million in infrastructure costs;
  • The City of North Port will contribute $4 to $5 million;
  • Sarasota County plans to contribute approximately $22 million from its bed tax collections;
  • The state is being counted on to pay for $20 million in construction.

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