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Columbia Could Take a Swing at Minor-League Stadium

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Could the college summer-league Blowfish give way to a minor-league baseball team? Photo by Thomas Hammond

A citywide discussion looms over whether the city should build a baseball stadium to bring minor-league ball back to Columbia.

At its most recent meeting, Columbia City Council budgeted up to $50,000 for a feasibility study of a minor-league baseball stadium. Once the results are in, it’ll hold a public hearing to get feedback on the idea.

And while the 181-acre Bull Street campus to be developed by Hughes Development is the likeliest spot, the study won’t look at just that one site.

Mayor Steve Benjamin has been clear that he wants baseball in Columbia. And he believes Bull Street is the best place for it.

“It’s about baseball, but it can’t just be about baseball,” Benjamin told Free Times when he made his first pitch for a stadium in 2012. “It’s also got to be about having the stimulative or catalyst effect that comes from having baseball in downtown.”

In fact, the city’s agreement with Greenville developer Bob Hughes commits Columbia to spending up to $20 million on a stadium if the idea is deemed feasible.

But one local baseball fan says it would be pretty surprising if the feasibility study finds that a stadium is anything but a great idea.

“One of the problems with all these feasibility studies is the people who do them make a living finding that things are feasible,” says policy analyst John Ruoff.

Ruoff is more than your average baseball fan; he’s a former co-chair of the Business of Baseball committee at the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR.

The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce offered to pay for the study, but at City Council’s Nov. 19 meeting, Council decided to fund the study itself instead.

Allowing the Chamber to fund the study “puts a cloud on what is its motive,” said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. “I think it would be our study; we should pay for it,” she said.

The Chamber has been a major booster of the Bull Street development deal with Hughes — and of Mayor Steve Benjamin.

But the Chamber doesn’t have a position on baseball for Columbia, says immediate past-chair Lee Bussell.

“We have an overall position on Bull Street,” he says. “Obviously there are some people that think baseball is an important part of that.”

Bussell says he personally believes baseball can boost a city’s revitalization.

“There are a number of places — Greenville; Fort Wayne, Indiana — where stadiums were built in not the most desirable locations but in fact turned into the catalyst,” Bussell says.

Still, Bussell cautions, the city needs hard numbers. “Instead of looking at those deals anecdotally — how were those deals structured? How was the cost shared? What kind of attendance can you get? … That’s what I would have been looking for in a feasibility study: If the decision is made, what are the best practices that would make it more of a community asset? And how much revenue would it generate?”

For Ruoff, though, some of those answers are already known.

Minor-league baseball “doesn’t create much in terms of good, sustainable jobs,” he says. Ballpark jobs are mostly part-time, seasonal, low-paying jobs.

Minor-league baseball doesn’t draw people from out of town, either, Ruoff says. “Other than a handful of crazy folks like me, people don’t travel to see minor-league baseball.”

And money spent on a stadium would be money the city couldn’t put elsewhere: on better infrastructure, transit or maybe on tourist attractions that would draw people from outside the region.

“If we don’t spend the money here, what could we spend that money on?” Ruoff asks. “What’s the opportunity cost?”

Columbia lost its minor-league team in 2004, when the Columbia Bombers of the single-A South Atlantic League moved to Greenville after a Columbia stadium deal fell through. The Columbia Blowfish, who play at the aging Capital City Stadium on Assembly, are a collegiate summer team.

The city is considered a ripe market for the return of minor-league baseball. In August, Benjamin was reportedly in talks with the Savannah Sand Gnats, of the South Atlantic League, but that chatter has died down.

City leaders have not yet identified the source of the funds for the feasibility study. The city has issued requests for proposals, and should select a consultant soon.

Council members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah voted against funding the study.

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