The discussion over whether Columbia should build a minor-league baseball stadium entered a new phase over the past few weeks, with groups on both sides pushing their agendas as city staff crunch numbers for City Council.
As Free Times went to press Tuesday, Council was preparing to take up the issue again at its evening meeting, though no vote was scheduled.
Under a deal proposed by Hardball Capital CEO Jason Freier, the city would commit $35 million or more toward building a multi-use stadium facility on land donated by Bull Street developer Bob Hughes. That’s on top of a roughly $57 million commitment the city has already made to infrastructure and parking at Bull Street.
As the debate rages, Midlands residents have been pelted with Facebook requests and emails from groups and council members on both sides of the debate.
The group Good Sen$e Columbia is made up of many of the same people who came together to defeat the strong-mayor referendum last fall — including former Municipal Association of South Carolina director Howard Duvall and former Richland County Councilwoman Kit Smith, according to former City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann.
And, claims Rickenmann, the supporters are the same, too.
“No offense, but it’s the same crowd that told us all these people wanted strong-mayor and it turned out we didn’t,” he says.
Columbia voters rejected the strong-mayor form of government 57 to 43 percent.
Good Sen$e Columbia has done several polls — one a scientifically sampled telephone poll of 402 voters that represent the city’s racial, gender and income diversity, taken during the last two days of January. That poll found 67 percent of voters oppose building a stadium. Rickenmann did not say who conducted the poll.
The poll also asked respondents to agree or disagree with a series of statements about a stadium. Eighty-eight percent of respondents agreed with this statement, for example: “Columbia has a long list of things it needs to do such as spend just less than $1 billion to fix its long-neglected water and sewer system, upgrade its parks and make our city safer. We need to address these items before we build a new sports stadium.”
A robocall conducted last weekend by the group found 55 percent of participants opposed to the stadium and 28 percent in support. Online polling at the group’s website is 78 percent opposed to the stadium.
But polling isn’t everything. According to Freier, before his company built its stadium in Fort Wayne, Ind., the idea of a stadium polled very poorly — down in the high 20 percent range, he says. Since it was built, the stadium’s approval ratings are up in the 80 to 90 percent range. That’s according to independent polls, Freier says — not ones funded by a group supporting or opposing the stadium.
Freier also says some of the statements in the Good Sen$e Columbia poll seem “very slanted.”
Meanwhile, another group, Building Bull Street, formed to support the stadium. Its publicly disclosed members are young professionals with ties to groups like Leadership Columbia. They’ve been penning editorials and urging people to attend City Council meetings.
Though Mayor Steve Benjamin has been pushing for a rapid decision in hopes of bringing a team here next year, the debate has slowed down over the past month.
Even if Council were to give baseball the thumbs-up, a 2015 season is looking unlikely, according to several council members.
“I have always thought the 2015 season is unrealistic,” Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine tells Free Times. “I think due diligence is most important and we do not need to sacrifice that to keep with someone else’s timeline.”
For 2015 to happen, “The sense I get is everything would have to hit to perfection,” says Councilman Cameron Runyan. “The weather would have to be perfect. … It is a swing-for-the-fences kind of thing.”
As for Freier, he’s still optimistic.
“We feel that 2015 would be aggressive but potentially possible,” Freier says.
The only way to find out, he says, is to start the process — assess the potential site, begin designing the facility.
Freier declines to give a drop-dead date for Council to make a decision.
“Every city does these things at their own pace,” Freier says. “The amount of time discussing this is similar to Fort Wayne,” where he owns another team.
He does say, though, that Bull Street developer Bob Hughes needs to know whether there’ll be a stadium at the site before long.
“The longer this uncertainty exists … it affects the development itself,” he says. “For two-plus years, every design that has come out for Bull Street has a ballpark on some part of the property.”
In fact, Freier says a developer that’s contracted to renovate the Babcock building and turn it into a boutique hotel “explicitly has an out in their contract if the ballpark doesn’t move forward.”
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