Editorial: Columbia officials obligated to negotiate best deal possible on proposed baseball park

January 25, 2014 

— WHILE WE maintain that the city of Columbia shouldn’t be the primary funder of a minor-league baseball park, City Council seems determined to construct a publicly owned stadium.

On Tuesday, the body voted 5-2 (council members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah voted in opposition) to open formal negotiations with a minor-league-team owner to build a ballpark on the old State Hospital site on Bull Street, where a large mixed-use development is planned. City manager Teresa Wilson is expected to report on her negotiations with Atlanta-based Hardball Capital on Feb. 4.

As it pursues this venture despite strong community opposition, the council must keep the interest of taxpayers at the forefront, not that of private concerns. All too often, local governments succumb to the will of pro sports teams, spending tens of millions of dollars on ballparks that allow the privately owned teams to profit, with little or modest return for the community.

Before Columbia agrees, the council is duty bound to provide — and city taxpayers deserve to receive — basic information about the commitment their elected leaders are on the cusp of making.

The council should:

•  Keep the process transparent.

•  Reveal the details of a proposed deal, including its plan to pay for the $35 million to $42 million park, at least a week before taking a vote.

•  Be willing to make changes that would result in a better deal for the city. While the city has competent council members, staff and lawyers, there are also many bright citizens who might be able to identify ways to improve the deal.

The significance of a city-owned ballpark took on new meaning last week, as developer Bob Hughes, Mayor Steve Benjamin and others suggested that the success of the mega-development at the Bull Street site hinges on baseball. To us, that means the minor league team and the developer — who stand to profit — should pay most of the cost for a ballpark while the city provides infrastructure and a modest contribution.

While Mr. Hughes said that a ballpark always has been part of the plan, its importance never had been made clear. Even during the rushed approval of the development agreement — when questions appropriately were raised about infrastructure funding, historic preservation and other issues — no one said a ballpark was the anchor for the development.

Mr. Hughes said the lack of a park won’t doom his development but also said retailers are counting on a stadium and that the contract with a company that wants to develop the Babcock building allows it to back out if there’s no ballpark.

There is enormous pressure on City Council, but it shouldn’t give away the farm. It is obligated to negotiate the best deal possible.

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