Editorial: Columbia must keep eye on ball at Bull Street site

September 16, 2012 

WHILE IT’S A relief that Columbia will retain control over how the 181-acre Bull Street project develops, it’s equally troubling that some city officials are entertaining the notion of subsidizing a baseball park on the site.

We can’t stress enough how important it is for the city to have final say in what changes can take place as this large project unfolds. It’s the city’s job to protect the integrity of the community.

In March, developer Bob Hughes proposed a development agreement that let a committee dominated by developers approve any changes to the design. That committee would have decided which projects got built or rejected, where they were located and the enforcement of the smart-code standards.

But to its credit, after community representatives complained that the city was relinquishing too much authority over a development that is expected to transform the area, Columbia City Council insisted the city retain control. That is exactly what is going to happen.

On Monday, the Columbia Planning Commission signed off on an updated agreement that keeps the ultimate control where it belongs, with the city. City Council could finalize that agreement as soon as next month. While it is imperative for the city to retain its authority and responsibility to monitor this development, Columbia officials must give Mr. Hughes the latitude to be creative and make a profit from his investment.

But it is incumbent upon Columbia to display good judgment not only toward land use, but also when it comes to financial support. As we have said, it is appropriate for the city to help provide infrastructure for a project that would add significantly to the tax roles and the economy. But Columbia must limit the amount of public money it spends on basics such as water, sewer and roads; the public should not foot the entire bill.

And the city should not commit any money toward the construction of a baseball stadium, which, if built, would benefit from the taxpayer-supported infrastructure.

We understand Mayor Steve Benjamin’s desire to bring minor league baseball back to Columbia, which sat on its hands as the Bombers left town for Greenville in 2004. We too would welcome baseball back to the capital city, but not if the taxpayers must pay for it.

Local governments should not be major backers of professional sports teams, many of which rely on government-backed venues. Minor league baseball in particular tends to be expensive to attract and even more expensive to retain; the return is modest at best. If the developer wants a baseball stadium at the Bull Street site, he should pull private investors together for that undertaking.

For its part, Columbia should keep its eye on the ball that really matters — providing proper oversight of the large development — rather than chasing after minor league baseball.

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