The two options being discussed by Columbia City Council are to either build a minor league baseball stadium on the Bull Street property or not to build it at all. There is a third option that has not been discussed.
The third option is that the City could pursue a minor league franchise without building on Bull Street, but locate it at Carolina Stadium, one of the newest and best college baseball stadiums in the United States. At the same time, the Bull Street property could be developed as high-rise rental and condominium residences.
The proposed baseball project at Bull Street raises several major problems. The first is that it is unknown whether a minor league franchise can make enough money to survive, especially at an untested venue that may or not prove to be a viable sports and entertainment location. Secondly, the project would cost an estimated $37 million at a minimum and very likely much more, for which the taxpayers would be responsible if the project fails to meet hoped-for results. Thirdly, the baseball field would take a large area off the tax rolls, aggravating a longstanding problem in the city, which has a huge amount of its land in untaxable government, church, educational and nonprofit ownership.
The city could choose to not build the minor league baseball park at Bull Street, but instead to develop the area as private residential or commercial property. This would mean no minor league team and none of the benefits hoped for by those who believe that professional baseball would be a boon to businesses in Columbia.
As far as baseball, the option that needs to be explored is for the city to negotiate a contract with the University of South Carolina for the development of Carolina Stadium into the best college and minor league baseball venue in the United States.
This could be done with an offer projecting large-scale city financial support — perhaps $10 million to $20 million — for the expansion and enhancement of Carolina Stadium by the construction of seating for another 3,000 or more of fans, the addition of sky boxes, the development of a fan-friendly restaurant with a view over the field, and even the inclusion of condominiums and housing in the vicinity of the stadium. Furthermore, the parking area could be greatly enlarged by buying and removing the warehouse east of the stadium and by building tailgating sites.
This third approach would solve several existing problems with Carolina Stadium. It is already too small and has sold out too many times, excluding fans, and its tiny parking area is ridiculously inadequate, especially for fans who want to tailgate. This approach would also allow the city to test the theory that minor league baseball can prosper in Columbia without the risk of being caught with a huge financial white elephant if minor league baseball fails financially and pulls out of the Columbia market as the Bombers did a decade ago. Even if minor league baseball were a bust, the University of South Carolina would have greatly benefitted by converting its underachieving baseball facility into the best college venue in America.
Of course, there are issues to be worked out.
Would USC be willing to cooperate? Would it fear that its fans would be siphoned off by a minor league team? Would it find itself inconvenienced in scheduling games and practices in coordination with a pro team?
Minor league baseball would not likely reduce attendance at Gamecock games — but an improved and expanded ball park would attract even more fans with its enlarged seating area, compensating for the current loss of tens of thousands of dollars of ticket sales due to sellouts, and its amenities and entertainment facilities would be even more attractive and convenient for fans.
As to scheduling coordination, it can be done. The city already owns Capital City Stadium just a few blocks away, which could be used as a practice field by both teams if necessary. In terms of scheduling, USC normally finishes its at-home schedule by the end of May, if not sooner, and minor league teams start in April. By April, USC is playing half of its games away and Carolina Stadium is empty half of the time. Minor league teams always play half of their games away. Scheduling conflicts could be avoided if both USC and the franchise acted in good faith and mutual self-interest.
For almost all of its history, South Carolina has been less than the best. Why not build the best minor league/college baseball venue in the United States and minimize the risks of doing so? With such a plan, even a minor league failure would still be a success for the City of Columbia and the University of South Carolina, rather than a disaster for the taxpayers.
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