Contract taking shape for proposed baseball stadium; Columbia mayor tells arts groups their money would be protected

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 18, 2014 

Greenville developer Bob Hughes' master plan for the Bull Street site, showing a site for a possible ballpark/mixed-use facility


— Columbia city staffers expect to have nailed down in two weeks a contract for a baseball team that might include lease payments worth millions to Columbia.

Council is expecting to vote on a draft contract at its March 4 meeting. Council appears to be moving toward building a stadium, although it has not voted to do so.

In addition to lease payments, contract negotiations with Hardball Capital also include the city receiving shares of concessions, naming rights, advertising and broadcast rights, city staffers told City Council on Tuesday in front of a packed council chambers.

The talks with Hardball Capital owner Jason Freier could result in Columbia getting a cut of all beverages sold at the publicly funded stadium, including the prospect of liquor, beer or wine, the staffers said.

If Freier and council reach agreement on the negotiations, the payments would apply to any event at the year-round stadium – not just at baseball games.

Lease payments, as opposed to a single, up-front payment from Hardball Capital, would mean far more income to Columbia over life of the contract, Freier has said previously.

Mayor Steve Benjamin has said many times in recent weeks that he wants an agreement in which Hardball Capital pays 60 percent of the cost of a stadium during a 30-year deal. The public share would be 40 percent over the life of the agreement, Benjmain has said.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine asked the staffers who are working on a public financing package for the stadium and the whole Bull Street neighborhood, to settle on firm figures.

Constantly changing figures are feeding skepticism about both projects, Devine said.

“What I don't want is to do another (financing) scenario so that next week people won't see something different,” she said.

That theme came up several times from residents who addressed council.

A factor the city is weighing in the lease negotiations is whether annual lease payments could result in denying the city from issuing tax exempt bonds for building the ballpark.

Earlier Tuesday, Benjamin assured about 70 gathered from Columbia’s arts community that they need not worry that a publicly funded baseball stadium and utilities for the Bull Street neighborhood will cut into taxpayer money for cultural organizations.

“I was crystal clear earlier when I said (I) would not support any reduction,” Benjamin said during a meeting he requested at the Columbia Museum of Art auditorium with arts groups. “I’d say a supermajority of council feels as I do.”

His remarks drew applause from some in the audience.

“Mayor, that’s exactly what we wanted to hear,” said John Whitehead, director of the Columbia Music Festival Association and chairman of a council-appointed committee that doles out about one-third of the $9 million Columbia received in taxes paid by patrons who ate and drank in the city’s restaurants and bars the past fiscal year.

Customers pay 2 percent on any prepared meals or beverages inside city limits. By law, the fee is known as a “hospitality tax,” often shorthanded as H-tax.

“The H-tax is not an entitlement for the arts,” Whitehead said after Benjamin’s pledge, “but it can exist along with a baseball park.”

Walda Wildman, a CPA and a critic of spending public money on a baseball stadium, pressed Benjamin further.

“Is the arts community’s takeaway from this meeting that their income is indemnified ... if H-taxes come in less than projected?” Wildman asked.

That’s when the mayor responded that his position is “crystal clear.”

Many cultural organizations worry that if the city approves a $24 million to $30 million loan for a year-round stadium to be repaid from meal taxes, it would result in less money for their groups because the city would have to increase it annual repayment to satisfy the loan.

Benjamin further assured the audience.

“I don’t believe that H-tax organizations need to be weaned off” their annual funding by council. For the past couple of years, some on council have pushed for reducing the amounts that established groups had been receiving in order to help start-up organizations.

Benjamin also said the city’s chief financial officer is working on a plan that would shrink the size of a new H-tax loan, which has fluctuated in recent weeks. The mayor did not say how much smaller or whether there would be a series of smaller loans. But he told the crowd that the new figures would be discussed by council at its March 4 meeting.

Some in the audience were circumspect about their positions.

Jennifer Suber of the Devine Street Association said merchants along the commercial strip have strong opinions about a ballpark and wonder if it’s already “a done deal.” But Suber did not state their opinion in a public meeting covered by local media.

Rather, she asked for a face-to-face meeting Benjamin.

He said he would attend and warned her against misinformation about the project, especially on the Internet. “People will give very bad information and spread it around,” Benjamin said as he agreed to meet with Devine Street merchants.

Another audience member asked if city leaders know how much a major, new entertainment venue in the Bull Street neighborhood would divert spending from Columbia’s established entertainment centers.

“I’ve not seen that studied,” Benjamin said. “That’s a great question.”

A few people questioned assertions in a feasibility study about how many people who attend events at the year-round stadium would spend the night in Columbia hotels and motels.

Reach LeBlanc (803) 771-8664.

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