Columbia (S.C.) Mayor Steve Benjamin says the votes are there to pass a new-ballpark funding plan, with final approval expected at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Veteran MiLB owner and operator Jason Freier has been working with Columbia on the ballpark plan, which calls for $29 million in bonding from the city and a new ballpark (opening in 2016) as part of a new development on Bull Street near downtown Columbia. For Benjamin and city council members supporting the ballpark, there are a variety of reasons why they are approving the project: economic development, outside investment and, of course, a love of baseball. Freier has a track record of attracting investment as part of a ballpark plan — Parkview Field, home of his Fort Wayne TinCaps (Low Class A; Midwest League), is well-documented as revitalizing downtown Fort Wayne — and that track record obviously struck a nerve with Columbia officials.
In an op-ed for The State, Benjamin laid out all the work city officials have done in preparation of the ballpark vote:
We’ve held more than 20 public hearings, input sessions, community forums and neighborhood meetings throughout the city because we wanted to hear every point of view, including those we may not fully agree with.
We’ve gone through two independent studies from nationally recognized firms examining the costs and economic development benefits of the multi-use facility and the Bull Street development, and they both confirm the projects will create jobs, grow the economy and generate millions of dollars in new revenue.
We’ve reviewed nearly 20 lease and licensing agreements from across the nation. We’ve contacted other cities that have built downtown minor league ballparks to learn from their experiences. We’ve brought in industry and legal specialists to help us negotiate the best deal possible, and we’ve found a way to pay for it without raising taxes, using water and sewer funds or reducing funding to organizations currently receiving hospitality tax dollars. These are the fundamental concerns we’ve discussed at length and in detail during our many public meetings.
Hardball Capital, Freier’s investment firm, will pay $6 million up front for ballpark construction. The total cost of the ballpark is budgeted at $35 million, and the city would bond the remaining $29 million, backed by hospitality tax revenues. Other sources of funding for the city includes shares of ticket revenues past 275,000 annually and half of any naming-rights deal, up to $350,000. If the Bull Street development hosting the ballpark does not attract $30 million in private investment, Hardball Capital will pay the city up to $516,000 annually. In addition, Hardball Capital will pay for surface parking (a ramp is planned down the road) and up to $250,000 for capital maintenance annually. All $35 million will be put into the ballpark: a developer donated the land.
One issue remains: what team will be moving to Columbia. Freier has two options: buy a team that’s currently on the market (say, in the High Class A Carolina League) or moving the Savannah Sand Gnats (Low Class A; Sally League) to Columbia.
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