Editorial: Columbia City Council shouldn’t rush to approve baseball park deal

January 20, 2014 

— WHILE WE understand the desire to bring minor league baseball back to Columbia and the belief that it will buoy development at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street, City Council shouldn’t rush to OK a stadium deal.

There has not been ample time to review necessary facts — such as funding and what an agreement between Columbia and a minor league team would include. While we appreciate Mayor Steve Benjamin’s efforts to hold information sessions around the city, they are no substitute for meetings at which the full council listens to public input and deliberates openly.

The council will hold a public hearing on the matter today, and some speculate that an initial vote might ensue. But it would be unwise to vote on a stadium agreement when any contract or other details would be new to council members and the public. While information has been shared about contracts that Hardball Capital has with other cities, we still haven’t seen the terms of a deal with Columbia.

By week’s end, the mayor, the chief proponent of a baseball park, had not produced a contract and was evasive about whether or not he would seek a vote and, if so, what it might entail. No vote should be cast today that would commit the city to funding a stadium. The council should exercise due care and take the time to consider all options, including having minimal or no participation in the construction of a stadium.

Some would like to rush this process so the stadium can be built and ready for baseball in 2015. But City Council’s first obligation must be to the taxpayers; if that means taking an extra week or two to review this proposal, so be it.

As we have said many times, it would be great to have minor league baseball in Columbia, but taxpayers shouldn’t bear the lion’s share of the cost. A consultant projects the cost at $42 million. Jason Freier, chief executive of Hardball Capital, has said he could build one for $35 million and has suggested his company would contribute up to $6 million. A deal Hardball has with Fort Wayne, Ind., has been held up as a model of what Columbia’s pact could look like. Fort Wayne supplied most of the money to build the ballpark while Hardball pays operating and maintenance costs, including improvements to the stadium.

The best and most financially responsible opportunity Columbia had to bring minor league baseball back to the capital city was when it was in talks with USC about sharing a stadium near the river. Unfortunately, that deal failed. But frankly, it’s an idea that should at least be proposed to athletics director Ray Tanner. Yes, it would take some effort to avoid scheduling conflicts when the college and minor league seasons overlap, but that would be limited. Carolina Stadium sits silent many nights. And any agreement would benefit USC financially.

While there might not be an appetite for such a deal, the limited resources in our city and state demand that kind of collaboration — whether between town and gown or among governments. Without it, we’re left to consider duplicative, costly endeavors such as a second modern baseball stadium in Columbia.

Let’s hope City Council at least takes time to thoroughly review and debate a new baseball park instead of trying to hurl a fastball past taxpayers.

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