This Just In

Mayor Still Needs to Sell Colleagues on Baseball

Tensions Continue at City Hall
By Eva Moore
Thursday, January 23, 2014 |

Though Columbia City Council voted 5-2 this week to continue exploring the possibility of minor-league baseball in Columbia, city leaders’ support for building a stadium is far from solid.

Four council members and Mayor Steve Benjamin voted to open talks with Hardball Capital, an Atlanta company that wants to build a multi-use stadium at Bull Street using a blend of private money and up to $35 million of public money. But the vote was only to continue gathering information and allow staff to negotiate directly with Hardball: It’s clear Benjamin has work to do to win the four votes he needs for actually funding a stadium.

Councilman Cameron Runyan, usually a reliable ally of the mayor, says he has “a long list” of questions and concerns about the stadium proposal.

“I’m really worried about making sure we understand what the risks are,” Runyan said near the end of a public hearing held Jan. 21. “Is there a black swan out there that will blow this thing up?”

Put Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine in the undecided column, too: She’s told Free Times she’s “open to the possibility of baseball and open to the city’s participation in that.” But she made it clear this week she hasn’t made up her mind.

“We have to decide, No. 1, is this something we want to do,” Devine said. “And then we need to look at if we can financially afford it. Those are two separate issues.”

Councilman Sam Davis is withholding judgment, too, remaining vague and polite about the possibility of a stadium.

As for council members Moe Baddourah and Leona Plaugh, they voted against opening talks with Hardball.

The timeline concerned Plaugh: Hughes and Hardball want to break ground on a stadium in March to be ready for the 2015 baseball season. But it became clear Tuesday that city staff have a great deal of work to before the city could put up any money. City Manager Teresa Wilson handed around a 23-point, two-and-a-half-page list of what would need to be done before a stadium deal could be struck, including legal reviews, assessing public safety needs and possibly creating a board or baseball authority to oversee things.

Plaugh asked Hughes if he’d still be willing to donate land for the stadium if the process were delayed a year, but he wouldn’t commit.

“I would like not to wait,” Hughes said. “Would I still donate land? I’d have to evaluate that.”

Meanwhile, Baddourah simply says he’s not hearing that people want baseball. They want better infrastructure and policing instead. And in fact, a majority of the people who eventually spoke at the hearing said exactly that.

The mood in council chambers Tuesday was tense at times.

Despite Benjamin saying he’d be more conciliatory toward his fellow council members after city voters rejected a December referendum that would have given him more power, there wasn’t much evidence Tuesday of a new civility at City Hall.

The hearing began at noon, and dragged on through a long presentation by Hardball Capital CEO Jason Freier and a brief trip to the podium by Greenville developer Bob Hughes, master developer for Bull Street. The public began to trickle out, not having had a chance to speak. Finally, Howard Duvall, former director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, stood up and grumpily proclaimed, “This was advertised as a public hearing. You have yet to hear from the public.”

The room erupted in applause.

The mayor explained that he wanted city Chief Financial Officer Jeff Palen to make his presentation about financing options for a stadium before Council heard from the public.

“I think it’s important to have the facts,” Benjamin said.

“That’s not a public hearing,” Duvall said.

“Thank you for your expert advice,” Benjamin said.

“It was a teachable moment,” Duvall said.

Plaugh urged Benjamin to let the public speak next, before the CFO’s presentation.

“Does anyone care to see how this thing’ll be financed? I guess not,” Benjamin complained.

Plaugh replied, “Mayor, I would normally agree with you—“

“No you wouldn’t, actually,” Benjamin said.

And so it went.

When Palen finally made his presentation, it became clear the price tag for the city’s participation in Bull Street continues to climb. Using preliminary numbers, Palen estimated the city’s total outlay, including a stadium, would clock in at more than $90.2 million.

How would the city pay for that? Palen pieced together several potential revenue sources: $9.4 million in cash from reserve funds; a $24 million hospitality tax bond; and $57 million in what are called Installment Purchase Revenue Bonds.

“I’ve tried to bring something back, as a starting point, to show you … what would have the least effect on us and our ratepayers,” Palen said.

Council will have to spend much more time debating the issue, they agreed.

On Feb. 4, when Council meets again, they’ll take up the baseball issue once again.

In the meantime, the mayor has some work to do.

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