Morris: Minor league baseball stadium would be good for Columbia

January 23, 2014 

OF ALL THE arguments naysayers bring to the table when discussing a new baseball stadium for Columbia, two carry virtually no validity. The critics say there should be no public funding for such a venture. They also say a professional team will duplicate what the city already has with South Carolina baseball.

Neither holds much weight.

Let’s start with the belief, at least among some, that the city already has a baseball team and there is no room for two. While there likely are many Columbia-area residents who would loyally follow both the Gamecocks and a professional team, the audience of ticket-buyers to the games is a wholly separate group.

USC baseball is played to a select audience — or base — of fewer than 10,000, mostly Gamecock Club members. Professional baseball in Columbia would play to a public base that now encompasses 785,000 in the metropolitan area.

When USC’s beautiful $35 million Carolina Stadium opened for play in February 2009, it had no competition from professional baseball, since the Capital City Bombers had departed for Greenville five years earlier.

From the beginning, season tickets to USC baseball games were a hot item for Gamecock Club members, and the desire to own them grew even greater with national championships won by the Gamecocks in 2010 and 2011. By 2013, USC had sold 5,835 season tickets.

With 6,400 permanent chair-back seats at Carolina Stadium, that does not leave many available options to the public. The stadium can hold up to 8,300 fans, but those remaining tickets are mostly in the left-field bleachers or standing-room only.

At $10 for general admission, USC also has effectively priced out of the market the average family of four wanting to go to the ballpark. A family outing to Carolina Stadium would likely top $100, including concessions, parking, etc.

There is nothing wrong with that. USC’s success in baseball has made for an elite product and represents an increased popularity in the college game that has blossomed over the past 15 years in the Southeast and Southwest.

To this argument, it also shows how different a college baseball audience is from one at minor-league baseball games. Gamecock Club fans flock to Carolina Stadium to see their team win. Citizens throughout the country go to their local minor-league baseball stadiums to experience a family night of entertainment. Winning games is not part of the equation.

Jason Freier, who owns the Fort Wayne, Ind., minor-league team in the Class A Midwest League and wants to move his Savannah franchise to Columbia, says ticket pricing — and appealing to the masses — is paramount to success in the minor leagues.

The lowest ticket price to a Fort Wayne game is $5. That would hold true in Columbia, Freier said, because after six years of operation in Fort Wayne, nearly 20 percent of its ticket sales have been for $5 stubs. A family of four can attend a game without taking out a loan.

Or, an individual can pay a premium price for a box seat. Freier said Columbia would mimic the ticket pricing in Fort Wayne, where there are what he calls 13 “different price points,” or a ticket price for anyone who wants to attend a game.

Carolina Stadium also has become a venue exclusively used year-round for USC baseball with games, camps, youth all-star games and off-season practices. The proposed minor-league stadium would be for the use of Columbia citizens. In Fort Wayne, Freier said, the park is open for public traffic, picnicking, walking and jogging every day of the year.

The point is that USC has its stadium for its uses. A new community baseball stadium would benefit the citizens of Columbia and the surrounding area through year-round activities such as concerts, road races, Easter Egg hunts, etc.

So, why shouldn’t public funds be used for a venue that will benefit the public? There was no outcry about using public funds when Colonial Life Arena was constructed for USC in 2002. Yet the city of Columbia contributed $5 million in tourism development money and some land. Additional public-money contributions from Lexington County and Richland County accounted for nearly one-third of Colonial Life Arena’s $60 million cost.

In some USC building projects, the city has contributed to infrastructure costs and has constructed nearby parking garages. These are all worthwhile contributions by taxpayers as part of recognizing the value of a major university to a city’s prosperity.

Yet when it comes to building something that will expressly improve the quality of life for all Columbia-area citizens, there is a groundswell cry against public funding. This, despite the fact that a Bull Street baseball stadium would add to the city’s tax base.

For Columbia to move forward, it needs to embrace bold projects like the new baseball stadium, and dismiss for good the tired old ways of trying to impede progress. Or at least come up with better reasons to impede it.

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