Columbia City Council on Tuesday voted to open formal negotiations with a minor-league baseball team owner to build a public stadium in the proposed Bull Street neighborhood and asked for draft contracts in two weeks.
Council members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah were the “no” votes in a 5-2 decision that followed a 5½-hour meeting and public hearing.
Council asked city manager Teresa Wilson to update members about negotiations with Atlanta-based Hardball Capital at council’s Feb. 4 meeting. Mayor Steve Benjamin asked that she come back with proposed management and lease agreements.
Council still would have to vote to approve any deal with Hardball Capital and its chief executive, Jason Freier.
Greenville developer Bob Hughes, who is overseeing the plan to build the Bull Street neighborhood, said during a rare public appearance before the vote that the plan was always to have a baseball stadium there. And he said he has come to bank on a ballpark to attract other retailers and businesses.
“The retailers are planning their shops around baseball,” Hughes said during the public hearing on the proposed ballpark that began at noon. “It’s kind of carefully choreographed,” he said of coordination between ballpark and retail construction.
Some retailers want to start construction late in the year, he said, adding that would coincide with Freier’s timetable to launch the team in April 2015.
One client, who Hughes said wants to build a hotel in and around the red-domed Babcock building, insisted on a contract provision that would allow the client to cancel if the ballpark is not constructed, Hughes told The State newspaper after the meeting. He would not name the hotel.
Hughes challenged critics who say the city should not spend public money on a private stadium.
“Everybody’s saying it wrong,” he said. “This is private money being spent on a public ballpark.”
The Greenville developer said he has spent $2 million of his own money and four years on the Bull Street neighborhood. “I have not received one dollar,” Hughes said of public money.
The hours-long public hearing portion of Tuesday’s council meeting was a broad platform for residents to speak their minds about the controversial city-owned ballpark project that carries a price tag of $35 million to $42 million based on projections from Freier, who is seeking to move a team here, and from a consulting firm hired by the city, respectively.
The city’s chief financial officer disclosed a range of sources the city could use to pay for a $35 million year-round, multi-use ballpark and the city’s estimated $55 million commitment to install water and sewer systems, two parking garages and other public services to help jumpstart construction on the 165-acre property in the heart of Columbia. The $55 million for infrastructure was raised l from this summer’s $70 million figure after the cost of the parking garages and the ballpark rose.
A suggested plan from Jeff Palen to cover the combined $90.2 million price tag would involve:
• $57 million: A revenue bond repaid by various funding sources, including stadiium lease payments, another general obligation bond or parking revenues
• $24 million: A loan repaid with future hospitality taxes on prepared meals, drinks
• $9.4 million: Money already in water and sewer, stormwater funds that have not been allocated.
By the time 33 people had addressed council, a clear majority of speakers opposed spending public money to help a for-profit company.
Many reminded council of the city’s needs to improve public safety and maintain its crumbling sewer system.
Opponents asked City Council to consider partnering with the University of South Carolina for joint use of the Gamecocks’ riverfront stadium. As an alternative, one man said, council should invest in refurbishing Capital City Stadium.
“A business prospect ain’t going to ask you about the ballet if your toilets don’t flush,” said Patricia Durkin.
Elizabeth Marks, of the Robert Mills neighborhood that is close to the ballpark site, chastised council for moving too fast once again.
“Here we are all over again,” Marks said as the public hearing began. “In July, we had to rush for a $70 million gift to a (Bull Street) developer or he was going to walk.
“Here we are seven months later. ... The Hughes company hasn’t announced a single private project,” Marks said.
One man, who favors the ballpark, cautioned residents against being shortsighted. “We want the profits,” he said. “We don’t want the risks.”
Other supporters called on council to be bold.
Council interrupted the public hearing for about an hour to hear Freier lay out his plans for a Columbia stadium. Each of council’s seven members asked him questions.
Freier said that his contract with Columbia would be modeled off the one he has with Fort Wayne, Ind., where his company pays all operating and short-term maintenance costs after contributing $5.5 million in up-front money to build what he calls a state-of-the-art, year-round facility.
Council delayed hearing Palen’s funding scenario after resident Howard Duvall complained that public comments at a public hearing were being supplanted by “your sales people selling the thing.”
When the hearing resumed at 2 p.m., two of the next nine speakers opposed public money being spent on a ballpark.
On social media, some opponents have come up with a label for the debate: “Baseball: Boon, Boondoggle or Baloney?”
A number of residents have complained about a public hearing in the middle of a workday, including allegations the timing is intended to blunt opinions that oppose a publicly funded ballpark.
Freier, also owner of the Savannah Sand Gnats, is in talks with the city about possibly moving the Class A South Atlantic League Sand Gnats to Columbia if he can’t persuade Savannah to build a new stadium to replace Grayson Stadium, built in 1926.
In recent weeks, Freier and his company have become publicly identified as the parties authorized by minor-league baseball’s management to open talks about moving a team to Columbia.
Freier said he has held more than 100 meetings with neighborhood groups, civic organizations, business groups, business and civic leaders and political figures, including each member of City Council.