Land offer, deadline quicken pace of minor league baseball plans

cleblanc@thestate.comJanuary 13, 2014 

Elements of a baseball stadium in the Bull Street neighborhood are emerging at a quickened pace with the disclosure Monday that the developer has pledged to give the city 10 to 12 acres on which to construct a year-round facility.

Further, the head of the company seeking to partner with the city to build and operate a roughly $35 million, 8,000-seat stadium said he needs a contract soon if he’s to open the park on his timetable: the spring of 2015.

Jason Freierq, chief executive of Atlanta-based Hardball Capital, said that Greenville developer Bob Hughes has agreed in principle to donate the land for what would become perhaps the first anchor project on the sprawling Bull Street site.

Mayor Steve Benjamin corroborated the assertion made by Freier and said the land donation has been under discussion for several months. Benjamin gave a rough estimate of $3 million as the development-market value of the donated acreage.

Bob McAlister, Hughes’ spokesman for the Bull Street project, was in the meeting with The State newspaper and did not dispute the donation.

Benjamin has yet to disclose his plan for how to pay for the city’s share of the ball park – much less what City Council would agree to do.

But the mayor said the city’s chief financial officer is to lay out funding options at council’s Jan. 21 meeting. Benjamin said he has not decided whether to ask council to cast the first of two required votes on a contract or a financing package at that meeting.

But Freier hopes council will act quickly. He said his preferred April 2015 opening date is an ambitious timetable, but doable if the weather and City Council cooperate.

Should council take two months to sign a contract, “then April 2015 is off the table,” Freier said.

He, too, would not be specific about how much money his company is willing to spend on the ball park.

Freier has offered the city either an up-front payment of up to $6 million and small lease payments for 30 years or little if any up-front cash but substantially higher lease payments.

“If we offer it over time, it would be more money (for the city),” he told a small audience at a community meeting Monday night at Earlewood Park without offering numbers.

In Fort Wayne, Ind., for example, where Hardball Capital operates an 8,800-seat ball park for the city, the difference in revenue the city between the two options was $6.5 million, Freier estimates.

Fort Wayne city leaders chose a $5.5 million up-front payment from Hardball Capital instead of an annual $400,000 lease payment that had been under discussion, Freier said. Over 30 years, the lease payments would have reached $12 million, compared with $5.5 million.

As Benjamin pointed out, the appeal of up-front money is that it would demonstrate Hardball Capital’s commitment to the project. “The optics of it are very good,” Benjamin said.

Freier said if the city opts for an up-front payment of up to $6 million, “That’s where it about maxes out” for his company.

In Indiana as in Columbia, Hardball would pay all operating and maintenance costs for the 30-year life of the contract, Freier said. It costs $1 million yearly to run Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, he said.

As in Indiana, Freier said the success of Parkview – where baseball admission prices are $5 to $9 – hinges on using the facility for a range of events that would make the park a destination for more than baseball fans. Parkview draws 500,000 visitors yearly, of which about 100,000 are for non-baseball events such as a city-sponsored road race, outdoor concerts seating up to 12,000, Halloween Fright Night for kids, as well as business and civic meetings and other events.

Freier said: “There’s something most days — 350 or so days, there’s something going on. Sometimes it’s 40, 50 people, not hundreds.”

A half-million visitors in a year is just less than the number of visitors to the metropolitan convention center during the past five fiscal years, the center’s attendance figures show.

Columbia’s push toward a stadium has amped up this month beginning with a feasibility study presented to council on Jan. 7 and a series of outreach efforts aimed at winning public support for the controversial ballpark by allowing residents to meet face to face with Freier and Benjamin, who is leading the push on council to build the facility.

Monday’s meeting at Earlewood Park, attended by about 15 people, was the seventh such community meeting.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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