Minor league stadium: Loophole may allow beer sales

DULUTH - Gwinnett's hopes to serve beer at the planned Braves Triple-A stadium are behind in the count, but not out.

Officials hope to use a loophole that allows them to serve beer at the Arena at Gwinnett Center on Sundays to also allow alcohol at the planned Buford Drive stadium, which is expected to open next year.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens," said Preston Williams, the arena's manager who is organizing the stadium construction project.

Legislators said Tuesday they want to forgo a bill that would give the county the ability to serve beer on Sundays, as the current law allows only stadiums within cities that right.

The bill passed the Senate, but a House committee amended it to include a vote on package sales on Sundays, a controversial proposal throughout the state.

While Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, said a Sunday without beer at the ballpark would be fine with her constituents, Williams said he believes the stadium could enact the "restaurant rule," which allows alcohol sales as long as more than 50 percent of food and beverage sales come from food. It is that provision that allows the arena to serve alcohol seven days a week.

"My understanding is the baseball stadium will be something like that," Williams said, noting that alcohol amounts to 35 or 40 percent of sales at the major league Braves' Turner Field. "As long as we don't sell 50 percent or more, I think we can do it."

During a Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau board meeting Wednesday, the board voted to hire Williams as the general manager of the bureau and the arena. He currently works for SMG, a management company which manages the arena through a bureau contract, but Williams' employment will transfer to the county Tuesday, so he can work full time on local projects, including a master plan for the Gwinnett Center.

Expecting to complete contract negotiations with the Braves by the end of the month, board Chairman Richard Tucker said the bureau would likely be responsible for a $500,000 fund to maintain the stadium. Tucker said the fund needed to be filled within five years, so the board will begin setting aside funds immediately.

That money is on top of the $400,000 annual commitment from the bureau for operations of the stadium, a deal for which the board set aside $2 million last month to cover the first five years.

Lee Tucker, the attorney who represents the bureau, said officials are close to agreement on the contract, although an issue has arisen over naming rights.

While the bureau wants to keep a competitive pool for marketing the naming rights, Braves officials have asked for veto power over certain industries to protect their sponsors at Turner Field.

Tucker said he expects to find a compromise.

According to the deal, the Braves would receive the first $350,000 a year in naming rights revenues, and the county would receive any additional funds. Officials hope to use the county revenues, along with a car rental tax, parking and ticket fees to pay back $33 million in bonds for the stadium construction, which are expected to close Tuesday.