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And Here’s the Pitch … Mayor Benjamin Makes Case for Baseball; Will Columbia City Council Go for It?

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
baseball columbia sc benjamin
Left: Columbia Blowfish. Photo by Thomas Hammond. Right: Major Steve Benjamin. Photo by Sean Rayford.
“We need shovels in the ground in March,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told a pair of reporters Monday.

That’s when builders would need to break ground on a minor-league baseball stadium in order to have it open for the 2015 season. And 2015 is the goal Benjamin and team owner Jason Freier have set for bringing a team to Columbia.

The duo have been making the rounds of Columbia, making their case at a set of community forums. About a dozen people (plus a handful of reporters and city staffers) attended one held Monday in Earlewood Park.

The pitch: Hardball Capital, Freier’s company, would build a stadium and multi-use facility similar to one Freier built in Fort Wayne, Ind. Developer Bob Hughes would donate 10 to 12 acres of land at Bull Street for the project. The city would put up a lot — but not all — of the initial capital, while Hardball would pay ongoing maintenance and operating costs. Hardball would move an existing team to Columbia and sign a long-term lease on the stadium.

Minor-league baseball attracts families with children, Freier says, and can revitalize cities. “It’s the new mall,” a councilman in another city once told him.

“There are people, if you ask them the morning after they were at one of our games who won, they wouldn’t be able to answer,” Freier says. “People sit with their back to the game” to socialize. “While the baseball purist in me hates that fact, it’s something we have to cater to.”

A multi-use stadium facility would be a catalyst for the Bull Street project, city leaders hope, where developer Bob Hughes plans to build a live-work-play community over the next several years.

Hence March: Baseball is key to Hughes’ other plans.

“Obviously there’s a big difference between April of 2015 and April of 2016,” Freier says.

Before any shovels hit the dirt, though, Benjamin will have to get the idea by his colleagues on Columbia City Council. And they’re not convinced they have the information they need yet.

Benjamin has scheduled a public hearing and first vote for Tuesday, Jan. 21. But it’s not clear yet what Council would be voting on.

Hardball has been meeting with the city’s legal staff since last fall, but there’s no agreement yet between the two entities.

And nobody has yet proposed how the city would put up the money for the stadium.

A feasibility study put the average price of a new stadium at $42 million. Freier has been saying he could build one for $35 million.

Under the leading plan being batted around, Hardball Capital would put up $6 million of that amount, and city taxpayers would be asked to pay for the rest.

What’s off the table when it comes to city financing? As of Monday night, Benjamin says he doesn’t want to use hospitality tax money to pay for a bond, he doesn’t want to use tax-increment financing, and he doesn’t want to raise taxes.

That leaves a few other municipal financing schemes, most involving general obligation bonds.

“We have the ability and the capacity to fund it in its entirety without any additional tax burdens to citizens,” Benjamin says.

He’s asked the city’s chief financial officers to lay out all the options to Council Jan. 21. And he’s asked Hardball to explain all the costs of the deal. City leaders will have to decide, in part, whether it makes more sense for Hardball to put cash up front, or stretch out payments over several years.

Several council members told Free Times they don’t think they’ll be ready to take a vote at Tuesday’s meeting.

“This is something that is way, way faster than it should be when you’re talking about committing public dollars,” says Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine.

“To me, we need to have a discussion as far as how much we’re being asked to commit,” she says. “There’s been all these side meetings; there hasn’t been an actual meeting where Jason [Freier] has presented. We haven’t heard directly from Bob Hughes.”

Still, Devine says, “I am open to the possibility of baseball and open to the city’s participation in that,” Devine says.

Not so Councilman Moe Baddourah, who strongly opposes the idea.

“I have not seen one email or phone call supporting a baseball stadium and the money we’re putting into it,” Baddourah says. “My district tells me not to support it.”

“I wish I had $42 million to fix my storm drainage,” he says. “I can fix the whole city’s storm drainage. I wish I had $42 million; I can hire more officers. There’s a lot of things I can do for 42 million dollars.”

Baddourah and Devine both are unimpressed by the feasibility study Council commissioned, calling it incomplete. The study estimates a stadium could bring in $400 million in economic impact, including $18.5 million in tax revenues, over the next 30 years. However, the study is not a true cost-benefit analysis — it simply finds that baseball is feasible, as do the vast majority of feasibility studies.

Over the last few years, Council has fractured: Benjamin usually wins the support of Councilmen Bryan Newman and Cameron Runyan, and is usually opposed by Leona Plaugh and Baddourah. Devine is a key swing vote, as is Sam Davis.

In his typically cautious manner, Davis is hesitant to commit to a position on the stadium.

“I’m still getting all the information,” he says. “It would be another amenity.”

Meanwhile, Freier and Benjamin will continue making their pitch for baseball in Columbia.

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