Savannah, Columbia both having a baseball team would depend on owner buying another

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 2, 2014 

— Some members of Savannah City Council are beginning to draw lines in the dirt over the prospect of building a new minor-league baseball park in the home of the “garden of good and evil.”

The council has not cast a single vote to spend $35 million for a year-round stadium that would replace a nearly century-old ballpark that is home to the New York Mets-affiliated Savannah Sand Gnats. Council has authorized a feasibility study but the city has not yet sought bids from consultants.

“I question whether the will is there to move forward with a stadium,” Alderman Tony Thomas, currently Savannah’s longest-serving member on the nine-member council, said last week. “I’ve become more guarded about my desire for a baseball team.”

As his contract with the city of Savannah nears its end in September, Sand Gnats team owner Jason Freier has asked for a new park there, as he has in Columbia.

Columbia City Council on Tuesday is to take up the funding options for the ballpark. City Council on Jan. 21 authorized manager Teresa Wilson to open formal negotiations with Freier. She told The State newspaper last week she will not have drafts of contracts ready for council to approve.

Speculation here has been that Freier would bring Savannah’s team to Columbia if he doesn’t get a new field in the tourist town that drew national attention from the 1994 bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

But Freier, who also owns the minor-league franchise in Fort Wayne, Ind., said he would have to acquire a third team if Savannah and Columbia build the stadiums he’s proposing.

“Having a team in Savannah and Columbia is not necessarily mutually exclusive,” Freier said Friday. “If we have projects in both cities, we would be talking about a third team.”

He said the rules of Major League Baseball bar him from publicly discussing moving teams while contractual obligations to current teams are in force. His contract with Savannah expires Sept. 30. His contract with the San Diego Padres-affiliated Fort Wayne, Ind., TinCaps – who play in his template for the Columbia stadium – extends 25 more years.

Freier has not said directly that the Sand Gnats would move here if he cannot get a new stadium in that Georgia city. However, that would be the least expensive alternative to buying another team.

His company, Hardball Capital, once owned a third minor-league team for two years. It was a Boston Red Sox affiliate in Salem, Va., which the company sold to the Red Sox in 2008.

Reticence in Savannah

Alderman Thomas said Friday that Savannah council members have been following developments to build a $35 million to $42 million multi-use stadium in Columbia’s planned Bull Street development.

“I don’t want to spend a bunch of city money just to strengthen (Freier’s) position in Columbia,” Thomas said of the pending feasibility study. “I will never vote to build a stadium without a team-promise in place, and Mr. Freier knows that. I would be a little more comfortable if Mr. Freier could show us that he’s buying a third team.”

Thomas said he is not yet prepared to ask Savannah’s council, which meets Thursday, to reverse its decision on hiring consultants for the feasibility study.

Freier’s offer to Savannah is strikingly similar to the one for Columbia: He would pay part of the cost if the cities agreed to build publicly owned parks.

Several Savannah council members said during a Dec. 12 work session that they worry whether their city can afford to build a ballpark in the face of a $120 million to $150 million commitment to a new indoor arena, a $21 million arts center and a range of road projects that are part of a just-renewed penny sales tax referendum there.

Alderman Mary Ellen Sprague, who represents the area of Savannah where Grayson Stadium sits inside a city park, said Friday that she would oppose funding if the ballpark were moved to Freier’s preferred site on the banks of the Savannah River.

Sprague said her constituents have been loud and clear on their position: “They love the stadium right where it is, and they don’t want to see it moved.”

Sprague said she would vote “no” on the riverfront site preferred by Freier, “Unless Jason can convince my residents and change their minds.”

Freier told council during the work session that remodeling Grayson Stadium would be as expensive as a new ballpark and it would not attract private investment to the area because there is no place for new construction to go. The riverfront site is undeveloped and ripe for growth, he said.

Efforts to reach Mayor Edna Branch Jackson or mayor pro tem Van Johnson were unsuccessful.

Sprague would not characterize council’s sentiment, but said most members are waiting on the findings of the study that is to examine a location and analyze the finances of such a public investment.

Same questions, different council

While Savannah is watching Columbia, Columbia is mimicking concerns in Savannah.

During the December work session, Savannah mayor Jackson told Freier she felt caught “between a rock and a hard place” over the series of expensive projects facing the city and a pledge to hold down property taxes.

“Nobody is saying we want to lose baseball here,” Jackson said. “What my fear right now is – everyone is pulling us to do this, that and the other ... (and) our funds are so limited, and we have many commitments.”

Mayor pro tem Johnson said at the meeting that he was undecided.

“To me, it’s going to be a very delicate mathematical process,” Johnson said. He prefers a stadium that would attract visitors to concerts, civic and other events because, “I’m not totally convinced that Savannah is a baseball city.”

Columbians wonder whether the city would support the powerhouse Gamecock baseball team and a minor-league team. Freier asserts the teams and the stadiums would serve different audiences.

Thomas asked the most pointed questions of Freier during the Savannah meeting.

“What’s insulating our taxpayers from suffering a loss on this once it’s built?” the alderman said. “Can you guarantee us that we’ll have a baseball team in the (new) stadium for 30 years?”

“Absolutely,” Freier responded, as he has to that question in Columbia. He cited Major League Baseball rules that would commit the league to finding a new team owner if a current one leaves or goes bankrupt.

“You’re not even relying on my financial solvency,” Freier told Thomas. “You have the full faith and credit of baseball behind you.”

In his interview with The State Friday, Freier said Columbia is about four months ahead of Savannah in the process of approving a stadium. He wants a Capital City team to start play in April 2015, when the minor-league season begins. The earliest he could field a team in a new Savannah stadium would be a year later, Freier said.

Hardball Capital would be willing to invest as much as about $6 million up front to construct a Columbia stadium, but that would result in smaller annual payments to pay off the rest. Alternatively, the city could chose to accept less up-front money and receive bigger annual payments, he said.

Freier would not provide specific numbers but said, “We are open to re-jiggering those things.”

He favors at 50-50 split with Columbia over the 30-year life of a ballpark. That would include construction costs, operating expenses, maintenance and on-going upgrades to keep the stadium a destination for baseball fans and others attracted to a range of events held there.

“We can get to the point where we are paying 50 percent, or a little bit better, every single year,” he said.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, council’s chief advocate of a city-owned ballpark, has said he’s pushing for a 60-40 split, with the majority being private money.

Freier said cities generally prefer regular, fixed annual payments from owners rather than relying on attendance that can be affected by weather and other influences.

Columbia’s feasibility study showed that, nationally, minor-league parks constructed since 1996 like the one being considered here were financed with 83 percent public money and 17 percent private.

Hardball bringing clients to Columbia

Freier argues that he and the city would make more money if a park is located where new businesses can count on a heavy customer base. He contends the stadium would attract 500,000 visitors annually as it does in For Wayne.

He said he has been approached by at least three out-of-state development companies interested in building in the Bull Street neighborhood if a stadium is constructed. He would not identify any of them, but said one has experience building around baseball stadiums.

“The folks that have reached out to me are people who have more experience in hotels, office and multi-family development,” Freier said. This would be a second hotel, not the one Bull Street master developer Bob Hughes said a client wants to build in and around the historic Babcock Building.

Some local developers also have expressed interest, but they are holding back until the stadium issue is settled, Freier said. “A lot of these people are interested in seeing how baseball plays out.”

As in Savannah, residents here have asked whether Columbia might be risking too much on the hope that companies and homeowners would flock to the 165-acre state mental health agency property Hughes has optioned to buy.

“It may take four to five years to get into the black,” Freier said, citing his experience in Fort Wayne, where the 8,800-seat ballpark attracted millions of dollars in new development. “Bull Street? It could happen sooner because of projects that are near ready. Hopefully, you’ll hear more about that soon from Bob Hughes.”

The Greenville developer has yet to announce a project for the site nearly seven months after pushing City Council to sign a contract giving him exclusive rights over what would be the single biggest private development in Columbia history.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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