Council hears plans for Bull Street but signs agreement not to tell anyone about them

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 4, 2014 

— Columbia City Council pushed ahead Tuesday on several fronts toward construction of the Bull Street neighborhood and a controversial city-owned baseball stadium that might have to wait until the 2016 season to open.

None of council’s actions rose to the point of casting binding votes.

However, city staff announced that:

•  A consultant has been hired to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of the proposed minor-league ballpark.

•  A consulting firm already working for the city will now help guide council through the whole process of building a stadium if council makes a final commitment.

•  The amount of a 30-year loan that would be repaid by restaurant and bar patrons might grow by $6 million to $30 million.

In other developments, council agreed to a closed-door presentation from Greenville developer Bob Hughes, who laid out specifics about his construction plans for the 165-acre property that have yet to be released to the public. Council members signed a confidentiality agreement with Hughes before he disclosed his plans, pledging not to say what they learned. Council members said that details from Hughes will help them decide on how soon city coffers would show revenue to balance a huge public investment in the neighborhood and, possibly, a stadium.

Two council members refused to sign the agreement and walked out of the closed-door session before the presentation, a nearly unheard-of move in Columbia city government.

The public also learned Tuesday night from Mayor Steve Benjamin that Hughes has agreed to donate the land to build two city-owned parking garages that are a requirement of Columbia’s contract with Hughes. The contract gives Hughes control over development of the expansive neighborhood.

An alternative, go-slower timetable on construction of the ballpark is under consideration, said Jason Thompson, of the firm that conducted council’s feasibility study on a $41.8 million ballpark.

That schedule would have the stadium ready by April 2016. Minor-league baseball seasons begin in April.

Such a schedule was news to the baseball team owner who is negotiating with the city for the facility. Jason Freier has said he would like to open in April 2015.

Freier, who attended Tuesday’s council meetings, said in an interview that Thompson’s schedule was the first he’d heard of a fallback timetable.

Thompson, of Brailsford & Dunlavey, told a crowded council chamber that to open the ballpark for the 2015 season would require that construction begin in May.

Freier, in an interview, said he worries that even under a slower approach, council might delay key decisions to the point that opening for the 2016 season could be squeezed.

The city also has hired Mark Simmons, of Parker Poe Consulting, to help with an analysis of whether Columbia would enjoy a net gain to offset the costs of a ballpark, said city economic development director Wayne Gregory.

Simmons also is to analyze how much the city would gain in property taxes, sales taxes, admission taxes, business license fees and other revenue from the investment in a stadium.

It was not clear how soon Simmons would submit his findings.

The city’s chief financial officer, Jeff Palen, and its financial adviser, Brent Robertson, walked council through a proposed financing package that would produce $90-plus million to pay for water, sewage and stormwater lines as well as roads, streetlighting and other utilities.

Robertson assured council that all the projections were conservative and assumes no growth in the city’s tax base for 30 years.

“It’s based on what the city has, not what it hopes to have,” Robertson said.

He also said the city would have to issue $60 million in installment revenue bonds to yield the $57 million for the revenue bond financing package. Robertson said installment bonds once were commonplace to pay for school construction. Columbia has not issued such a bond since at least 1993, Palen has said.

Robertson also warned council that interest rates are likely to climb so issuing bonds sooner is likely to cut interest payments.

Palen, who previously had suggested a $24 million meal-tax bond, said council should consider upping that to $30 million. He said he will lay out the advantages and disadvantages next week to council’s Finance, Audit and Budget Committee.

In another change in the financing package, Palen said the projected $12 million expense for each parking garage might be forced up by inflation to nearly $14 million for the second one if the city waits five years to construct it.

Council heard from several people in the audience who support a publicly funded ballpark.

A Brookland-Cayce High graduate, DeAndre Asbury-Heath, told council he was drafted last summer by the St. Louis Cardinals. He said a stadium would spark more interest in baseball and encourage young people to “chase their (baseball) dreams.”

Early Tuesday afternoon, council held a three-hour closed-door session that began with Hughes and his development team.

Hughes said he could not risk disclosure of details of his ongoing negotiations with tenants interested in locating in the Bull Street neighborhood. He said the confidentiality agreement he presented was in line with those extended to most development companies.

Councilwoman Leona Plaugh and councilman Moe Baddourah – who often vote in tandem – said they would not accept the agreement with Hughes but did not want to block others on council from hearing what he had to say.

So they left the meeting.

Plaugh and Baddourah said they want to know only about signed contracts with Hughes.

“What they’re talking about is names (of clients),” Plaugh told The State newspaper as she sat outside of the meeting room. “I need to know the dotted line, folks ... square footage.”

“I don’t want to know who is coming,” Baddourah added. “I want to know when we’re going to start collecting property taxes.”

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said what Hughes disclosed helped her understand better whether to commit more public money to the project.

“It gave me more confidence that the city will see more return on our investment,” Devine said after the closed-door session ended. But she said she’s not ready to vote “yes” on the funding package.

Last month, several council members asked Hughes to tell them privately about commitments he has or is working on so they could make more judicious decisions about how to pay for the city’s $90-plus million obligations to jump-start the huge, private development.

As Hughes left the meeting with the remainder of council, he said he needed the confidentiality agreement to protect his clients from competitors learning of their construction plans too early.

“The city is our partner (in Bull Street) and we were releasing to our partners the status of our confidential negotiations,” Hughes said.

He declined again Tuesday to characterize the size or nature of the businesses with which his company is in talks or when announcements will be made.

“We have a history and reputation of not announcing anything we don’t build,” Hughes said. Many clients are waiting on council’s decision on a minor-league ballpark, he said.

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