About five months after Mayor Steve Benjamin began talking in earnest about bringing minor league baseball back to Columbia, City Council has narrowly voted to build a ballpark at the historic Bull Street campus.
In a 4-3 vote, Council gave final approval Tuesday night to an agreement with Hardball Capital, an Atlanta-based company that owns minor league teams in other cities.
The city will borrow $29 million, to be paid back with hospitality taxes over the next 30 years, to build the stadium. A team would likely begin playing in 2016.
A large crowd turned out for the vote; the meeting stretched past four hours as city staffers, then the public took to the podium to discuss the project.
Neighborhood leader Christie Savage told Council she favors the ballpark.
“This will attract people to Columbia, will provide a venue where people can go and have a good time and not spend a lot of money,” she said. “A lot of people have said ‘Wait.’ I grew up during the civil rights era and I’m glad some of the people who say ‘Wait’ were not around then.”
But other residents said the ballpark would be a poor investment.
In particular, several people called for a true cost-benefit analysis of the project, saying the city had so far only heard rosy forecasts showing baseball could work in Columbia.
In fact, city staffers are looking for a consultant to do a cost-benefit analysis of the entire Bull Street project, which could be ready a few months from now. Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine wanted to delay a vote until after that analysis was ready, but the mayor pushed for a vote now.
“I can’t imagine another world-class city that would put that cart before the horse,” said Elizabeth Marks, a downtown neighborhood leader, of the vote coming before the analysis. “I would also like to see a public referendum on this.”
“Pro-baseball rhetoric is not a substitute for due diligence,” Marks said, bemoaning “the fact that we have not discussed ballparks that have failed or cities that have struggled to pay off ballparks.”
It was a serious meeting, lightened only when one citizen called for Councilman Cameron Runyan to recuse himself from the vote and resign from Council, saying she’d heard on WIS that he was planning to move to Greenville. (Runyan intends to stay in Columbia, he assured the public.) Her description of Runyan as “a petite, balding man” fueled ribbing from Benjamin throughout the night.
In the end, the stadium gained the support of Benjamin and council members Brian Newman, Sam Davis and Runyan — the same four who approved it on first reading. Voting no were Leona Plaugh, Moe Baddourah and Devine.
For the first time, Runyan publicly explained his position on the stadium.
“I’m in an interesting position because I was initially against this,” he said. As a financial professional, “I don’t invest in things I don’t understand.”
But he compared the amount the city will spend on baseball to the many years of public investment in the Vista.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room that would argue the Vista has not been a fruitful investment,” he said. “It is one of the great success stories of South Carolina.”
Runyan also noted that the ballpark project wouldn’t take money from the city’s water and sewer fund or its general fund.
“It’s important to point out that these are hospitality funds,” he said, which are restricted by state law in what they can be spent on. “It would be illegal for us to spend those funds on water and sewer, Boeing, etc.”
It was Leona Plaugh who’d first brought up Boeing, saying the city could have chosen to spend money on attracting “a BMW or a Boeing.”
“Instead, we have chosen to invest in a divisive multi-use entertainment venue,” she said.
A fired-up Sam Davis listed his conditions for supporting the project: “One, that this venue would not cause a tax increase. Two, that we not spend water and sewer dollars.”
It’s time for other parts of the city to get some investment, Davis said, and Bull Street is a start.
“I’ve given the mayor a little hell about this because I know what the impact is if this project fails,” Davis said. “I believe in making investments. I believe in other parts of this city getting [money].”
It’s not just Davis who’s been giving the mayor hell. For Benjamin, Tuesday’s vote marks the end of many months of citizen outrage, public meetings and op-eds and anonymous emails and debates over the stadium. Benjamin jumped headlong into the baseball fight right after city voters rejected his push to make Columbia a strong-mayor city last fall. So it’s been a long haul.
In his closing remarks, Benjamin said the ballpark is a big vision supported by ample evidence that it’ll work.
“We can’t [become a great city] by just shooting holes in ideas,” Benjamin said. “We can’t just oppose things.”
But Kit Smith, a former Richland County Councilwoman who opposed the ballpark project, told Council there’s much more debate and decision making to come before the first pitch is thrown out at Bull Street.
“This is not even the beginning,” Smith said.