By Amanda Coyne
Editor’s note: This story updates a previous version.
The much-discussed, much-disputed Bull Street baseball stadium and multi-use performance venue cleared its first hurdle Tuesday as Columbia City Council approved a licensing agreement between the city and Hardball Capital with a 4 to 3 vote. But the session lasting more than four hours was not without drama. Some residents spoke passionately against the plan, motions were made to delay the vote and tension between Councilwoman Leona Plaugh and Mayor Steve Benjamin was palpable.
The two approved ordinances establish development agreements with Hardball Capital and Hughes Enterprises, which will provide less than a quarter of the project’s funding combined. The city is on the hook for $29 million of the $38 million project. Bonds backed by hospitality tax revenue will be used to pay for the stadium, but taxes will not be increased, Benjamin said. Hardball will provide $6 million, and Hughes will provide $3 million.
The entire Bull Street project — including the infrastructure already committed to and the newly approved stadium — is projected to cost $137 million over the next 30 years, when financing is taken into account.
Plaugh, Tameika Isaac Devine and Moe Baddourah were the three council members who voted against the plan. While Baddourah was against the proposal outright, Devine expressed willingness to revisit the plans at a later date if the council reviewed additional studies concerning the benefits and risks of building a minor league baseball stadium and conducted a cost-benefit analysis. She expressed considerable concern with the proposed 2015 opening date of the stadium, calling it “aggressive, but unrealistic.”
In her efforts to delay the vote on the stadium and performance venue, Plaugh also called for a more thorough analysis of risks and benefits, as well as to incorporate affordable housing projects into the Columbia Commons area, of which the stadium would be a part.
Community turnout for the vote was high; the Columbia City Council chambers were packed full, with people crowding onto benches and standing against walls. More than a dozen Columbia residents and community leaders made impassioned pleas both for and against the stadium’s construction. Multiple young professionals approached the podium to say the stadium would help retain more recent college graduates and, in turn, attract more business growth. Parents and grandparents said they could see their families growing up going to baseball games at the stadium.
But others said the plan was too hastily made and that the money would be better used elsewhere. Residents complained of roads peppered with potholes, outdated park and community center facilities and decades-old water and sewage systems. Baddourah agreed, saying that spending so much on the stadium project was like putting all the city’s eggs in one basket and could deter new businesses from coming to Columbia.
Speaking about the effects on hospitality tax revenue and whether the city will have the ability to fund new requests, Baddourah said: “Newcomers will not be welcome because there will be no money ... unless the eggs start hatching chickens all over the place.”
Kit Smith, a 20-year veteran of the Richland County Council, spent several minutes enumerating many things she said were lacking from the plans. She went well over her allotted time, clearly antagonizing Mayor Benjamin.
Resident Edith Watley called the arrangement between the city and Hardball a “sweetheart deal” in which Columbia got the short end of the stick.
“I wish I had their negotiators when I was getting divorced,” Watley said.