Concerned Columbia groups plan to question funding for baseball

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 17, 2014 

Columbia Common master plan concept

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    Two key meetings are scheduled Tuesday on public funding for a minor-league baseball stadium and more widely for the Bull Street neighborhood.

    11 a.m. at the Columbia Museum of Art: Mayor Steve Benjamin addresses arts and cultural groups.

    6 p.m. in City Council chambers: Council receives status reports on contract negotiations with a baseball team owner, financial considerations and risk management for both baseball and the public commitment to the 165-acre Bull Street neighborhood.

A group of Columbia activists is organizing to block public funding for a new baseball stadium, while worried arts organizations are anticipating a key meeting Tuesday with Mayor Steve Benjamin to discuss whether taxpayer money spent on baseball might hurt cultural events.

GoodSenseColumbia has paid for two public opinion polls, is soliciting members and is seeking to rally supporters to attend City Council’s meeting Tuesday to press for answers.

Meanwhile, city and state restaurant and hotel organizations are poised to take public positions on a plan to borrow $24 million to $30 million that would be repaid through taxes collected from patrons who eat or drink in Columbia’s restaurants and bars.

All those interest groups are waiting to hear what council does Tuesday and what Benjamin tells arts groups in a meeting he requested at the Columbia Museum of Art before council meets.

The fledgling GoodSenseColumbia group as well as long-established arts and cultural organizations have differing sensibilities but a common question: Can the city afford large public investments in the proposed Bull Street neighborhood and ballpark without shortchanging current public services?

“That’s what we need – answers,” said John Whitehead, director of the Columbia Music Festival Association and chairman of a council committee that dispenses about one-third of the city’s annual collections on prepared food and beverages, known as hospitality taxes. “Tell us how you intend to not reduce what the arts groups are getting and still do everything else you’re projecting. How are we going to do it all?”

Benjamin said Monday he called for the meeting to answer questions from the arts community, which rallied to support the 2 percent meal-tax as a steady funding source.

“It’s not to allay fears and concerns,” Benjamin said of the meeting. “I am confident that we can maintain our level of (financial) support to the arts in Columbia.”

He said meal-tax loans, called hospitality tax bonds, might be issued in stages, not all at once. But Benjamin declined to say if he has a specific proposal in mind.

Efforts to reach city manager Teresa Wilson, who ultimately will make recommendations to council, were unsuccessful Monday.

The core question of what the city can afford lies behind the establishment in recent weeks of GoodSenseColumbia, an informal group of 10 to 12 core activists, said co-founder Ari Derrick, a retired educator and financial planner.

“I realized the numbers (released by the city) don’t add up and other people felt the same. We just kind of coalesced,” Derrick said Monday of the organization that grew from casual conversations, emails and social media.

So far, three GoodSenseColumbia members have agreed to be publicly identified: Derrick, community activist Virginia Sanders and former city councilman Daniel Rickenmann.

Derrick said she asked other core members to disclose their names Monday. None who responded to her emails would do so, she said.

Derrick also said she does not know how much money the group has raised or how much it spent on two scientific polls that gauged public sentiment on the city’s latest projected $90.2 million commitment to the 165-acre site in the heart of Columbia.

She released the highlights of a phone poll taken Jan. 30-31 of 402 registered voters. That poll showed that 67 percent of respondents opposed a publicly funded stadium in the Bull Street development, according to a summary document Derrick released.

Another phone poll taken over the weekend came up with 2-to-1 opposition, though Derrick did not release any documentation of that poll.

Derrick, Whitehead and others have complained that the city’s projected investment in the neighborhood, including the ballpark, keeps rising. They want firm figures.

The city’s cost estimates jumped $23 million since last summer when council signed a contract with Bull Street developer Bob Hughes. In addition, the projected size of the meal-tax loan grew by $6 million in January.

GoodSenseColumbia’s immediate goal is to get people to attend council’s 6 p.m. meeting Tuesday, at which updates are to be discussed on contract negotiations with Hardball Capital for a year-round stadium as well as finances and risk management for the neighborhood and the ballpark, according to council’s agenda.

Whitehead said arts groups are worried that the increased annual payback cost for a second hospitality tax loan would siphon money that now goes to arts groups, neighborhood festivals and other tourism-related events in Columbia. The city still owes $12.8 million to pay off the remaining balance of a 2004 loan, Columbia’s chief financial officer has said.

Robin Waites, director of Historic Columbia Foundation, agreed with Whitehead that preservationists and others who rely on meal taxes want clarity from Benjamin. Waites said Benjamin asked for the meeting at the city museum.

Waites and John Durst, director of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said their organizations might take public stances on ballpark funding after Tuesday’s meetings. Durst called the meeting with the mayor “pivotal.”

“There certainly is some concern about what has been understood to date about the direction this possible bond issue (loan) is heading,” he said. “I plan to go there with an open mind.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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