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Minor League Baseball, Minor League Government

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, February 26, 2014 |
When I hear those who clamor for a taxpayer-funded minor league baseball stadium as part of the proposed Bull Street development, I’m reminded of those who clamored for a taxpayer-funded hotel as part of the proposed Convention Center development over a decade ago.

The pitch of those seeking to give away tens of millions of your tax dollars is the same now as it was then: We must do this with public money, or it will not happen. And it is absolutely crucial to Columbia’s future. Indeed, if it does not happen, our city will quickly be swept into the dustbin of history.

Funny thing, though — after a citizen uprising took down the plan to build “Hotel South” at an outrageously inflated (some would say corrupt) price using public funds, it got built anyway. By private investors. Using their own money. About half as much as the city said it would cost.

It’s called the Hilton Columbia Center; it has a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, serves the adjacent Convention Center and actually pays taxes rather than sucking them up. Imagine that.

Yes, Columbia has been down this road before. Many times. Our city’s inability to get it right when it comes to public investment and real estate deals is legendary: millions lost on the CCI land deal, millions lost on the Vista Fire Station deal, millions lost on the Tapp’s building deal, millions lost on the North Main commercial center deal, the collapsed Five Points parking deck and condo deal, and the list goes on.

These adventures in real estate by our elected leaders have left us with a checkered past when it comes to checks and balances. And writing checks. And lacking balance.

So it is again with the proposed minor league baseball stadium, only this time the plan is even more ludicrous than the hotel plan was because the city has such a clear, low-cost (actually no cost) alternative if it wants to bring minor league baseball back to Columbia.

Known as Carolina Stadium, it is already built, is a wonderful facility and sadly sits idle during the summer when baseball should be played and minor league teams do in fact play in cities across the country.

Our beloved Gamecocks will play their final home game at Carolina Stadium on May 15. After that, this baseball palace will simply sit, empty of fans and fun.
No take me out to the ballgame, no root, root, root for the home team. It’s ridiculous. And heartbreaking.

But where is Mayor Steve Benjamin when it comes to pursuing a deal with the University of South Carolina to bring minor league baseball back to Columbia and bring Carolina Stadium to life in the summer? Well, he’s busy doing the bidding of Bull Street developer Bob Hughes, who wants a new baseball stadium built on his site but using your money. (Yes, the prospective team would pay rent, but it would be a pittance compared to the cost of the stadium.)

By the way, while Benjamin, Hughes and backers of a publicly financed stadium often cite Fluor Field in Greenville as an example of what such a facility can do for a downtown area, what they don’t like to tell you is that Fluor Field was privately funded. That’s right, the $16 million facility was not built with tax money. I guess they forgot to mention that.

They also don’t like to talk about the ideal location of Fluor Field right on Main Street in Greenville, within walking distance of all the adjacent restaurants, bars, shopping etc. Compare that to the questionable location of the proposed stadium at the Bull Street site, which would be within walking distance of nothing on Main Street in Columbia. Or the Vista. Or Five Points. Instead, it would be yet another “entertainment district,” an isolated outpost trying to cannibalize existing venues.

Moreover, they don’t explain why the fabulous Fluor Field cost just $16 million, while we’re looking at a cost of up to $42 million for the proposed stadium here. Of course, we’re talking about private money in Greenville, tax money in Columbia. Sounds kind of like that once-proposed $70 million publicly financed convention center hotel that was built for $40 million by the private sector.

As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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