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Columbia Needs a Real Debate on Baseball Stadium

A Pox on Both Your Houses

By Dan Cook
Wednesday, February 26, 2014 |
Everywhere you go these days, the talk turns to the mayor’s proposal to build a minor league baseball stadium on the Bull Street campus.

Unfortunately, the chatter is rarely productive or well informed.

On one side of the debate are scores of naysayers convinced that Mayor Steve Benjamin is hell-bent on drowning the City of Columbia in a sea of debt and selling out its citizens to an out-of-town team owner. On the other side are the mayor and his supporters, peddling under-developed financing plans and overly rosy economic development projections.

The pseudo debate we’re having doesn’t serve the interests of either side — or of the city as a whole.

It’s time to have a real debate about the stadium. That starts with a fundamental understanding of what the proposal is about.

First of all, the proposal is not about baseball for baseball’s sake. That’s a key point, and one that far too few of the mayor’s detractors seem to acknowledge. It’s about minor league baseball as an economic catalyst for the 181-acre Bull Street campus. The proposed stadium would present not only minor-league baseball, but also concerts and other entertainment-related events year-round. As planned, it would be accompanied by retail and residential development.

No, the plan is not as ambitious or inspiring as the painstakingly developed 2005 Duany plan, but it’s a plan strongly supported by Bob Hughes, the Greenville developer to whom the city sold the property — and on whom the city is depending to develop it.

The mayor rightly points out that the Bull Street development plan has a goal much larger than baseball in mind — and that is to put more property on the city’s tax rolls. The relative dearth of taxable property is a perennial challenge for Columbia. As a capital city with an inordinate amount of federal-, state- and university-owned property, not to mention nonprofits and churches, Columbia is hamstrung when it comes to generating the revenue it needs to properly invest in its future. To the extent that multi-use development on the Bull Street campus could increase property tax revenues in the long term, it is important that such development happens.

But the mayor has yet to make the case effectively for his baseball stadium proposal. To do so, he should answer — in detail, and without delay — the questions that are on people’s minds.

First and foremost: Is this the right move for Bull Street? Hughes says it is, and he might well be right. But is his view the only one that matters? Is Columbia to be forever beholden to Bob Hughes just because he bought some property in the city center? Baseball is not the only potential answer to developing Bull Street — but it’s the only one on the table right now, and it’s the one that must be dealt with before others can be considered.

Closely related to the first question is: Can we afford this? Early in this debate, the mayor said repeatedly that there are multiple funding options. More recently, he has lent his support to a specific proposal — a $30 million bond backed by H-tax revenue, $5 million in cash, and another $57 million in bonds to be paid back by as-yet-unnamed sources.

Still, questions remain. At a recent meeting with arts groups, the mayor made the unlikely assertion that their H-tax funding would not be affected by payments on the $30 million bond. The mayor’s slipperiness on the funding details is interpreted by detractors — and probably even would-be supporters — as political smoke-and-mirrors. Give us a credible and detailed plan, mayor, and we’ll tell you whether we support it. “Trust me to find the money” is not a credible plan.

Here, the mayor has an uphill battle. Citizens know that whatever the potential benefits, $100-plus million — roughly $60 million for infrastructure already committed to, and another $40 million for a stadium — is an enormous sum for a city with a $136 million general fund budget. We know that publicly financed stadiums have, at best, a mixed track record in economic development. Vision talk and stories of little girls wanting baseball are not going to win us over. A strong, detailed and credible plan might. But we haven’t seen one yet. 

In addition to being more forthcoming about the trade-offs involved in funding a stadium, Benjamin needs to do a better job explaining how a stadium would fit into an overall economic development strategy; how we can afford to finance our ongoing extensive water and sewer needs while also financing Bull Street development; why we should believe that Columbia could and would support such a venue; and — a question voiced constantly in coffee shops and bars — why sharing the Carolina Stadium with the University of South Carolina is not part of the discussion.

Once the mayor has fully made his case — but not before — he deserves an up or down vote on his baseball plan. Should it ultimately fail, he owes it to the people of Columbia to come right back to the discussion with Plans B, C, and D for Bull Street.

For their part, the naysayers in this debate should step up their game, too.

First, as vague as the mayor’s proposals have been, the reaction to them has been far less cogent. Though the outcry is often couched in the language of fiscal responsibility, there is often willful ignorance or pure viciousness lurking none too far beneath the surface. Comparisons of Mayor Benjamin to Fidel Castro simply because the mayor carefully stage-manages his public appearances — a comparison made last week in a letter to Free Times — are simply ridiculous and do nothing to move the debate forward.

Watching the anger over Benjamin’s plan unfold over the past few weeks, an element has emerged that few could have anticipated: nostalgia for the Coble era. After years of clamoring for strong leadership, Columbians — first in the strong mayor debate, and now in the baseball debate — have apparently decided they don’t want it after all. Having been exposed to even a modicum of the rough-and-tumble of robust leadership, voters seem to be longing for a return to Mayberry.

Voters, a reminder: You voted for decisive leadership because you were tired of a seemingly endless search for consensus on key issues. Mayor Benjamin has picked up the pace, and he’s perfectly content to win a 4-3 vote when that’s all he can get. You don’t have to support his positions, but you should at least remember why you wanted a change in leadership style in the first place.

Ultimately, voters and City Council members are free to reject the mayor’s baseball plan outright. Ideally, such a rejection would lead to new and better proposals for the Bull Street property.

In practical terms, however, there is a very real danger in the naysayers’ position: Call it the Five Points South Syndrome.

In that scenario, which unfolded between 2006 and 2009, investors put down $4 million for a tract of land in Five Points. After much debate, they planned to build a six-story development that would have had ground-level retail, two stories of public parking and condominiums on top. The Five Points Association strongly supported the plan, but residents in wealthy nearby neighborhoods opposed it, objecting primarily to the aesthetics of a six-story development in Five Points.

Ultimately, the naysayers won. Instead of residential units and much-needed parking, Five Points got a Walgreens, as the developers concluded it was the best they could salvage out of a deal they’d spent years on.

If we don’t have a proper debate about Bull Street, there’s a very real danger that we will end up with a stadium we can’t afford or the equivalent of a Walgreens we don’t want.

Ultimately, however, the issue is bigger than baseball or no baseball. It’s about what kind of city Columbia is going to be — both physically, on the Bull Street campus, and politically, in terms of how we discuss and debate matters of importance. The pseudo debate we’re having now is only poisoning the well of our already-challenged city politics.

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