MORRIS: If Columbia is to have a minor league baseball team, funding for stadium is essential

rmorris@ thestate.comJune 29, 2013 

STEVE BENJAMIN has a dream. The Columbia mayor wants professional baseball to return to the city where he sits as mayor. He believes the construction of a stadium in the proposed Bull Street neighborhood will serve as an economic stimulant to the city, as well as a boost to the civic culture that naturally comes with fielding a minor-league baseball team.

As Benjamin envisions that castle in the sky, he turns on his best Chamber of Commerce speak.

“America’s greatest pastime is baseball. It’s American sport,” Benjamin says. “I don’t think you can be a great American city without having America’s pastime. I love baseball. I’m a baseball fan, but it’s so much bigger than baseball.

“When you go to different cities around the country, whether it’s Oklahoma City or Durham or Fort Wayne or Greenville or Charleston, you see the effect (baseball) has on economic development around the park and on having affordable entertainment options for families.”

Unfortunately, for now at least, any talk about minor-league baseball returning to Columbia after a nearly decade absence, is just that: Talk. Until the first of many millions of dollars is committed to building a stadium, and until the first shovel of dirt is turned toward its construction, pro baseball for Columbia remains in the dream state.

It certainly does not hurt to dream. It has been too long since the city of Columbia let Greenville swoop in and snatch up its franchise, build a beautiful new stadium and reap the benefits with the transformation of its downtown to a thriving business and entertainment environment.

Nine years later is not the time to harp on what might have been, but rather to look ahead to what might some day be.

Benjamin’s optimism toward future baseball in Columbia stems from the proposed Bull Street neighborhood, a 181-acre site that eventually could be transformed by Greenville developer Bob Hughes into a combined commercial and residential district on the north end of downtown Columbia.

Everyone involved in the project believes a baseball stadium would further enhance the neighborhood, and there is little arguing the fact that 70 games a season from April through August would help increase traffic to the area.

Securing a minor-league baseball franchise is a fairly simple business these days. If a city can build a stadium, a team will be found to move there, and a major-league club will supply the players. But until plans to build a stadium are finalized, one can only speculate as to what leagues, teams and franchises will locate here.

Geographically, the most logical place for a Columbia team is in the low-Class A South Atlantic League, which includes clubs in Greenville and Charleston. Columbia fielded a team in that league from 1983 through 2004, first as the Columbia Mets and later as the Capital City Bombers.

The other likely landing place would be the high-Class A Carolina League, where the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats attempted this past offseason to relocate to Wilmington, N.C. The Atlanta major-league team wanted to partner with Mandalay Baseball Properties in purchasing the club and moving it to Wilmington.

But Wilmington residents rejected a referendum by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin to build a $37 million stadium in a deal that would have collected $500,000 annually in rent from Mandalay Properties.

Without a stadium, Atlanta and Mandalay Properties withdrew their offer and the team remains in Lynchburg. The same scenario exists for Columbia, which cannot do much in terms of seeking a team or major-league affiliate until it secures funds to build a stadium.

Benjamin has tossed out a $20 million figure as what is needed to begin talking about a stadium. Benjamin made it clear Thursday that a stadium is likely to cost more than that, and that it must be funded through a public-private partnership.

So, even if Benjamin gets the OK to allocate $20 million from city coffers for a stadium, he likely will need matching money from a developer (possibly Hughes) or a potential team owner, and there are not many in minor-league baseball who can front that kind of money.

Benjamin said he will scout many of the cities around the country that recently have constructed stadiums to see how they were financed and how successful the teams have been in stimulating the local economy as well as enhancing the city’s culture.

El Paso, Texas, which was without a minor-league team affiliated with a major-league organization since 2004, recently approved a hotel tax increase to fund a $50 million downtown stadium. Construction is under way in Charlotte for a $54 million stadium with $38 million coming from the Triple-A club and a $16 million contribution from the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Other recent stadium costs included $21.5 million in Greensboro, N.C., $48.7 million in Winston-Salem, N.C., and $53 million in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The costs vary depending on stadium size and various amenities that are offered.

One thing every minor-league ballpark aims to offer is family-affordable sports entertainment, which has been missing from Columbia since the Capital City Bombers departed in 2004.

Now, at least, Columbia residents and their mayor can dream again about being able to afford taking a family of four to a professional baseball game. But turning that dream into reality cannot begin until funds are secured for the building of a stadium.

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