Columbia big enough for 2 teams, study finds

jwilkinson@thestate.comJanuary 7, 2014 

A panoramic view of the area behind the Babcock building where a minor league ballpark could be built.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State Buy Photo

Minor league baseball at a new stadium on the former site of the S.C. State Hospital on Bull Street wouldn’t adversely impact the two-time national champion University of South Carolina Gamecocks baseball team, experts who conducted a feasibility study for the city told council Tuesday.

Gamecock fans are passionate about the game, implore their team to win and are obsessed with statistics, players and the competition that goes on between the foul lines, said Rich Neumann, vice president of Brailsford & Dunlavey, a Charlotte firm that conducted the study.

People attending minor league games are there for the experience and inexpensive family entertainment – bounce houses and games for the kids, adult beverages in the outdoors, promotions and entertainment between innings.

Major college programs are “more like a major league mentality … a baseball fan-driven experience,” Neumann said. “Our competition is movie theaters and water parks.”

He added: “Some of (the fans) don’t even care who wins or loses. They just want to have fun.”

City Council is considering whether to fund the majority of an estimated $42 million, 8,000-seat ballpark that would be the centerpiece of the 165-acre redevelopment of the Bull Street property. Mayor Steve Benjamin and Bull Street developer Bob Hughes of Greenville are pushing for the new stadium.

A public hearing before City Council on the issue has been scheduled for Jan. 21, before Benjamin’s State of the City speech.

Columbia officials are talking with Savannah Sand Gnats owner Jason Freier about potentially moving the Class A South Atlantic League team here if Freier can’t convince Savannah to build a new stadium to replace Grayson Stadium, built in 1926.

The Sand Gnats are the South Atlantic League champions, but ranked 13th in attendance in the 14-team league. Freier has said the team loses money each season because the stadium, rebuilt in 1941, has none of the amenities of more modern ballparks, such as open concourses, outfield berms, group areas and playgrounds.

Freier’s company Hardball Capital also owns a team in Fort Wayne, Ind. Georgia media have reported Freier asked Savannah for a $35 million commitment for a new ballpark at Savannah River Landing, and was prepared to spend $500,000 a year on rent. City officials there have been reported as preferring to build a civic center on the site.

Freier has met with neighborhood leaders in Columbia, as well as with each member of City Council at least once. He did not attend Tuesday’s council meeting.

The planning study stated a minor-league park could bring in more than $400 million to Columbia over 30 years. The money would come from tax revenues, personal earnings and private business earnings – including from a boost in hotel-room occupancy, restaurant meals and shopping dollars spent by visitors to the Bull Street area. It estimates an influx of 500,000 people downtown during a 70-game home season.

The study didn’t say how the city should pay to build the stadium. But it offered a list of options such as a special tax increment district, general obligation bonds, ticket surcharges and hotel and restaurant taxes, among other methods. Benjamin has yet to suggest how the plan could be funded, but has said he would not favor using hospitality taxes.

The study noted that Columbia is the second-largest market in the continental United States without a professional sports franchise, behind Baton Rouge, La., which is home to the powerful Louisiana State University Tigers baseball program.

Neumann said that the study shows downtown minor-league stadiums can help boost investment in areas like the new Bull Street development, tentatively named Columbia Commons, and pointed to Memphis’ downtown stadium as an example.

But he warned: “You can’t expect a ballpark to do all the heavy lifting … but this could be a catalyst.”

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