Stadium upgrades up for vote
BOC to consider $19M budget increase for venue

LAWRENCEVILLE - For a moment, the idea of a 50 percent budget increase for Gwinnett's minor league baseball stadium was a shock to Vi Bean.

But it just took a few seconds for him to remember the haste with which the deal to open the 10,000-seat Gwinnett Braves stadium was made to bring the $19 million increase into perspective.

"That's pretty surprising; well, actually it's not," Bean said without hesitation. "A project of that magnitude, usually there are cost overruns. Because this project was put together so quickly, I don't think they had to time to do the due diligence."

During a session Tuesday, commissioners will consider giving the additional $19 million, which would come out of the county's reserve fund. In January, the board agreed on a deal to give $7 million for the construction - after spending $5 million for the stadium's land on Buford Highway just south of the Mall of Georgia.

The remainder of the original $40 million construction budget came from a $33 million bond package, which will be paid back with the Braves' rent, a $1-per-ticket fee, parking charges, a car rental tax and naming rights.

At the time, officials knew little about the stadium's potential design or the construction obstacles, said Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau board chairman Richard Tucker.

While they projected an increase in the cost of materials such as plastic, steel and concrete, the actual costs are about $1 million more than the budget.

Officials also made decisions to allow for underground detention to improve the aesthetics of the site and lessen the impact of maintenance, adding another $4 million onto the price. Environmental upgrades worth $1.5 million will allow the stadium to have treated wastewater for irrigation and toilets - a savings of 5 to 7 million gallons of water a year - and pervious paving to lessen stormwater runoff.

Other upgrades include 34,000 square feet of additional space to allow fans to walk entirely around the field and improvements to the architecture to conform with the nearby Mall of Georgia overlay district.

With retaining walls, rock removal, sewer upgrades and management fees, the price tag has increased $19 million.

But Tucker said officials have done all they can to reduce costs while designing a high-class stadium. He said the speed of the project - which has to be complete by Opening Day in April - has impacted the finances.

"We're all for value engineering, but we can't deliver an inferior product," Tucker said.

Bean, who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to the stadium and was the first to address commissioners about the project the day it was approved, said he is glad to hear of the aesthetic upgrades, although he's not sure about the costs.

"You can imagine with something done so quickly there were going to be cost overruns because there were so many assumptions," he said. "In the end, if they do it right, it'll probably be good for the community, but we'll have to pay for it."

Commissioner Bert Nasuti, a tourism board member who originated the baseball idea, said he is convinced the money is needed.

"We've only got one opportunity to really build it right," he said. "If you make bad decisions now, you pay for them later."

Nasuti said it was the special touches such as extra padding in the seats that have given a "wow factor" to the Arena at Gwinnett Center, another project that came with a $25 million boost from the county's reserve fund. He wants to create the same atmosphere at the Gwinnett Braves stadium.

"I think with the test of time, people will say, 'Boy, you had an opportunity, and by God we stepped in and hit a home run with it," Nasuti said, excusing the pun. "It will more than pay for the pain and expense."

With the decision made in January to build the stadium, County Administrator Jock Connell said he believed the county has to move forward with the new construction budget, adding that the financial situation is fine.

"I think we have no other practical option but to do this," he said.

According to the bureau's Preston Williams, the foundations for two warehouse style buildings forming the shell of the stadium are about 90 percent complete. The grading will be done in the next 30 days.

Williams said the project is ahead of schedule despite rain two days last week. Construction crews are working 14-hour days, six days a week, and the contractor will soon go to two full shifts to complete the interior work, he said.

"As we worked through the design process, it became clear that this ballpark needed to be something more than a stadium to watch a game," Tucker said. "It will be a place for families to create memories and traditions, and it will be a major economic engine for our county."

SideBar: If you go

What: Board of Commissioners meeting

When: 10 a.m. work session, 2 p.m. business session Tuesday

Where: Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, 75 Langley Drive, Lawrenceville