LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett's baseball bank account got a $19 million boost Tuesday, when commissioners unanimously approved dipping into reserve funds for a 50 percent increase to its minor league stadium construction budget.
"I'm excited," said Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who likened the decision to imposing the same standards on the county as he did in a rezoning case that day. "It's going to cost more money, but at the end of the day, it's going to be better for the community."
The money for the Buford Drive stadium will pay for upgrades to the design including architectural improvements, 34,000 square feet of additional space, an underground detention pond to reduce maintenance costs and improve aesthetics and improvements to allow the stadium to use treated wastewater for irrigation and toilets.
According to officials with the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is overseeing the construction, part of the cost over-runs were created because of the speed of the construction, since the stadium has to be open for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves to begin play in April.
While no residents spoke publicly during the meeting, a man stood outside the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center with handmade signs protesting the move for "boondoggle baseball."
"It's a crime. It's a shame they won't spend the money on things the public needs," such as a women's shelter, said Charles Northrop of Snellville.
At a time when the county has instituted a hiring freeze in every department other than public safety and asked firefighters and police officers to conserve fuel, District Attorney Danny Porter said he could not believe commissioners voted for the increase.
"We can't put enough cops on the streets, we can't put enough deputies in pods and I can't put enough prosecutors in courtrooms, but we can play baseball. It's absurd," he said. "It's an unbelievable squandering of taxpayers' money and to pull it out of reserves is just irresponsible."
Not counting a $5 million land purchase, commissioners already contributed $7 million in recreation funds for the construction and sold $33 million in bonds, which are expected to be paid back with a rental fee from the Braves, a car rental tax, naming rights, parking and ticket fees.
Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, who is known for keeping an eye on county spending, said he lost sleep over the decision. He said he even considered plowing over what has been built so far and converting the land to a county park.
But because the county has to have revenues to pay back the bonds, he said the only choice was to move forward and create a stellar ballpark.
"I felt it was the only thing we could do that was fiscally responsible, believe it or not," he said. "I felt we had no other choice."
But Bert Nasuti, the commissioner who created the county's baseball dream and serves on the tourism board, said the investment will be worth it.
"We didn't take it lightly," he said, adding that he is glad the board approved environmental and technological upgrades. "It's a tremendous investment in the community. We're giving our citizens an outstanding family venue and a quality of life asset."