Mercury rises, again 

Cox's sweetheart deal from six years ago has critics crying hypocrisy

In the summer of 1999, a Fortune 500 company based in DeKalb County decided to build a new headquarters. So it did what any good company would do -- it shopped around for the best corporate welfare package that government could offer.

The deal Fulton County came up with, as it turned out, was the sweetest. The county promised to cut permit fees, help with tasks such as sidewalk construction, and, most importantly, vastly reduce the taxes the company would pay on the new property.

Fulton County economic development officials referred to the negotiations with the company as "Project Mercury." The name made sense: In Roman mythology, Mercury was messenger for the gods, and the company on the receiving end of the deal was Cox Enterprises, the media giant that owns the biggest radio station (WSB-AM 750) and biggest newspaper (the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) in Georgia.

Memories of the 1999 deal between Cox and Fulton County have resurfaced in the past weeks, as the AJC's calls for access to the NASCAR museum bid have grown louder. The paper has claimed that because the bid to attract a NASCAR museum involves public money, it should be open to public scrutiny.

It's a laudable goal, but opponents of the paper's stance, which include local business leaders and politicians, are pointing to Project Mercury as evidence that the paper applies a different standard to itself than it does to others. After all, back in 1999, the AJC never mentioned a word of the sweetheart deal its corporate parent was getting from Fulton County.

Gov. Sonny Perdue is one of the politicians who, in a position that doesn't exactly make him a champion of open government, believes the NASCAR bid should be kept sealed. Last week, his spokesman, Dan McLagan, could hardly wait to comment on the AJC's non-coverage of Project Mercury.

"This is an orgy of hypocrisy worthy of Caligula," McLagan said, in keeping with the Roman theme. "Their media empire is screaming for open records access to private companies while keeping secret from the public identical deals on their own behalf. ... It proves to me that openness isn't [the AJC's] goal but being the arbiter of what the public should know is their goal."

Last week, AJC Editor Julia Wallace, who hadn't joined the paper at the time of Project Mercury, passed CL's questions to Cox spokesman Bob Jimenez, who didn't return a request for an interview by deadline.

The 6-inch-thick folder of Project Mercury documents reviewed by CL raises real questions about the wisdom of the deal Fulton County cut with Cox six years ago. After all, Cox, whose business and history were rooted in Atlanta, was hardly at risk to leave the region altogether.

What's more, the property Cox was eyeing in Fulton County six years ago was a mere two miles from its then-headquarters on Lake Hearn. Economic development packages such as Project Mercury are usually aimed at bringing new jobs to a region. But Cox was looking to move nearby, to Sandy Springs. Why give millions of dollars in tax breaks to attract a company that was just a five-minute drive away, albeit over the county line?

The only remaining answer, since it wasn't new jobs, was prestige. The more Fortune 500 companies Fulton County boasts, the more attractive the county looks to other companies looking to move.

Still, prestige was evidently enough to convince Fulton County officials to offer Cox a package that, in property taxes alone, was estimated to save the company $6.7 million over 12 years. In the documents CL reviewed, there was never any mention that the Cox deal might not be worth it for Fulton County. In fact, even after Cox had accepted the deal and built a gleaming 16-story tower of steel and glass on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road in Sandy Springs, Fulton County officials were still eager to help Cox tie up any loose ends.

In 2002, a sinkhole appeared in the road outside the new headquarters. Cox called United Water to fill the hole, but months passed with nothing done. Finally, Cox turned to its old friend, Bob Simmons, the Fulton County economic development manager who had shepherded the original deal some three years before. Simmons e-mailed back within five hours.

"I will get right on this and call them," Simmons wrote. "I will even call Mayor Franklin's office if satisfaction is not forthcoming."

So eager was he to help that Simmons struck a personal chord. "Every time I look up from my desk, I see the Cox Enterprises photo and the words 'From your friends at Cox Enterprises.' I value that friendship and will take this problem to its conclusion."

Today, the Cox offices are considered some of the swankest in metro Atlanta. Occasionally, AJC reporters make the drive from their bleak newsroom in downtown Atlanta to Cox headquarters for training. They enter through an enormous light-filled atrium, whose ceiling evokes the design of a bicycle wheel (cycling being a passion of Cox CEO James Kennedy). They marvel at the fitness center (open only to corporate employees) and the cafeteria (where the food is cheap and, unlike the slop at the AJC's "Deadline Diner," so edible it's been called "delicious").

Last month, Cox Enterprises received a property tax bill of $612,000 -- $408,000 less than the amount it would be paying without the corporate welfare package it received six years ago. Last year, the company's tax bill savings was roughly $430,000. Not until 2013, in fact, will Cox pay its full way in property taxes.

Property taxes, of course, are the price property-owners pay for the services a local government provides. In Cox's case, the company is paying well short of its fair share.

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