Columbia’s baseball fight offers similarities, differences with Greenville’s Fluor Field

cleblanc@thestate.comMarch 8, 2014 

— The construction of Greenville’s minor league baseball stadium almost a decade ago was met with intense skepticism, even acrimony, much as Columbia is experiencing now.

Few Greenvillians could foresee that the site, a vacant lumberyard frequented by drug users and prostitutes, could flourish as a thriving extension of the Upstate city’s bustling Main Street, Mayor Knox White said last week.

“We were operating beyond the pale of public opinion,” White said, recalling the year-long battle from his sixth-floor City Hall office that overlooks Main Street. “We thought that one day, one day, the growth would get down there. We were all nervous,” he said of the seven-member City Council that toughed out public pushback.

Columbians on either side of the Capital City’s heated ballpark debate can point to the Fluor Field experience to bolster their arguments. Detractors can say that no public money went into the construction of Greenville’s stadium. Supporters can say the ballfield ignited the revitalization of the city’s once-blighted West End.

As Fluor Field approaches its ninth year of hosting a Boston Red Sox-affiliated team and local events, “It has had every impact we wanted,” White said. “The neighborhood was totally transformed. The neighborhood is beautiful. It’s safe.”

White said a telling example of the area’s continuing vitality is that $1 million-plus townhouses nearby are selling.

A Greenville artist who opened an art studio complex in the West End before the turnaround likened the stadium to “fairy dust” for growth.

The State newspaper requested statistics from the city to demonstrate the size, variety and location of new construction around the stadium. Greenville’s economic development director, Nancy Whitworth, said early in the week she would gather the data but later in the week said she had become too busy to produce the analysis.

Still, a map the city produced last summer of Greenville construction projects shows nine within a three-block area around the ballpark that are either completed, under construction or planned. The projects range from retail and restaurants to residential.

“It’s just alive, unlike before,” said Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming, who has represented the area since 1981. “They were all moving out, and it was going downhill fast.”

Diane Kilgore Condon, who opened studios for herself and other artists in an old warehouse in the area in 2001, said only adventurous types seeking low-cost spaces ventured to the West End back then.

“The people who needed a nudge, they showed up after the ballpark,” Condon said. “It got magical for everybody else. We thought it was magical before. It was kind of like fairy dust,” she said of the stadium.

White’s account of the fight to bring a privately funded stadium to downtown is chronicled in a book, “Reimaging Greenville, Building the Best Downtown in America,” published last year.

In the book, the author quotes from White’s files.

“The saga of the baseball stadium was the longest and most controversial project the city has undertaken. There were enormous financial hurdles, lawsuits and little public support for the longest time ... . But there was one constant – City Council members shared a conviction that downtown is where it belonged, and that made all the difference.”

Columbia City Council last week gave tentative approval – by a one-vote margin – for spending $29 million in public money for a ballpark in the 165-acre planned Bull Street development. Team owner, Hardball Capital of Atlanta, would kick in $6 million. The deal needs one more vote to be final.

A council minority and a corps of vocal opponents in the city remain steadfastly opposed to a financing plan that is the opposite of what Greenville did.

But Mayor Steve Benjamin and other advocates are just as adamant that a $35 million publicly owned Columbia stadium will kick-start private investment that could produce results similar to Greenville’s and other cities they cite as examples.

White wrote to Benjamin last week and offered to take Columbia City Council on a tour of Fluor Field.

One of the three owners of the Greenville stadium and team, Craig Brown, declined to say how much it cost to build the stadium.

However, the Upstate city cites the figure as $15.5 million, while Bob Hughes, the Greenville businessman who is the master developer for Bull Street, said at a Jan. 21 Columbia council meeting the cost was $26 million. Hughes, who has redeveloped much of downtown Greenville, has no financial interest in the Greenville stadium or the team, Brown said.

Fighting Braves, church and County Council

Greenville’s baseball saga began to intensify in the summer of 2001 as the AA Atlanta Braves-affiliated team that played for 21 years at aging Municipal Stadium on the edge of town near a sewage treatment plant wanted major improvements.

If the city would not spend millions to upgrade the stadium, the Braves would leave Greenville, White said.

This was the team that had brought future Braves greats Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine to town. Even Dale Murphy played exhibition games there, according to the “Reimagining Greenville” book, which was written in cooperation with White.

Before Greenville’s teams were affiliated with the Braves, future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan struck out 19 batters in one game at another Greenville park during the summer of 1966, the book states. Future Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda played in Greenville in the 1950s.

The Braves outlined their demands in a letter from the team’s general manager to the city seeking an $18.3 million laundry list that included a new playing field, scoreboard, lighting, spectator suites, a restaurant and other improvements, the book states.

Team owners’ tactics amounted to “putting a gun to our heads,” the mayor said last week.

“My council was very united,” White said. “We were going to bring that stadium downtown.”

Still, council had made a last-minute pitch to keep the Braves with an offer of an $18 million city-built stadium using a range of public funds, the book states.

Eventually, White and council members became adamant about minimizing the amount of public money to construct the stadium, especially since the city had recently issued $7 million in bonds to save the region’s largest convention center, the Palmetto Expo Center, from closing.

The city also insisted the stadium be built alongside a multi-story, urban strip of mixed residential and commercial buildings that now straddles the left field and center field line, White said.

Many baseball team suitors approached the city, the mayor said. Columbia’s Capital City Bombers made a startling offer.

“But the Bombers’ ownership made the best offer of all – they offered to build a mixed-use stadium at their own expense!” White said in the book. “We were stunned.”

He said in the interview that Greenville was prepared to put money public money into the stadium, “But we just got a better deal.”

Ultimately, council approved $8.5 million split evenly between the purchase of the six-acre lumberyard and street improvements around the ballfield, said John Castile, Greenville’s city manager who at the time was assigned the task of putting the deal together as an assistant city manager.

Ultimately, the Braves left Greenville for Mississippi. Columbia’s Mets-affiliated team moved to Greenville and later became the Boston Red Sox-affiliated Greenville Drive.

The city derives no direct income from the stadium, White said. But the mixed-use building produces about $330,000 in property taxes yearly as well as $13,500 in business license fees and $101,000 in taxes from restaurant and bar patrons, according to the city’s figures. The annual total is about $444,600, the city figures show.

Columbia would see no property taxes from its deal, as the stadium would be city-owned.

Holiday vote gives downtown park life

Acquiring the land proved to be another test.

White said he and city staffers used a scaled-down template of a ballpark and literally placed the transparency on city maps to see where it might fit. He still has the transparency in his office.

The lumberyard location could barely accommodate a ballpark and an adjacent buildings that the city insisted upon to bring the first residents and businesses to the site, White said.

But the Greenville school district owned the property, and Greenville High School parents wanted the land to expand the land-locked school’s athletic fields, White and Castille said.

A plan for a joint-use stadium fell in a tie vote by the school district board.

The tussle came down to an hours-long school board meeting a week before Christmas 2004. The board approved a land swap with the city by a two-vote margin at 1 a.m.

The city agreed to buy 19 homes and businesses, relocate five families and transfer that land to the school in exchange for paying $4.1 million for the lumberyard and a few adjacent properties, Castille said.

The swap “gave us a chance for downtown baseball,” White said in the book.

Amid the hubbub downtown, another powder keg exploded. A Greenville County councilman who had been defeated in a re-election campaign got County Council to approve a funding plan before he left office that would allow the neighboring city of Mauldin to build a stadium, according to the book. A private citizen, Ned Sloan, sued and got a restraining order to stop it.

White said the episode “poisoned the relationship between the city and the county for a long time.”

Yet more opposition sprung from African-American leaders of the century-old Allen Temple AME church, one of Greenville’s oldest black churches, located adjacent to the lumberyard, according to White and the book.

Critics and city leaders held dueling news conferences, wrote commentaries to The Greenville News and conducted uncounted interviews on TV and radio, White, Fleming and others said.

Flemming and White met repeatedly with church leaders and tried to satisfy other worries about glare from stadium lights and traffic jams during ballgames.

“The idea of putting something with that much activity associated with it (downtown) was sort of alien,” White said.

Flemming said the concerns she received were that the stadium would dwarf the church and congregants would have trouble getting into church parking lots.

Neighborhood organizations supported the ballpark because of the promise of construction jobs and the prospect of revitalization, Flemming said.

The stadium has 20 fulltime employees and 200 game-day workers, said Nate Lipscomb, a vice president for the Drive. Ballpark owners hired many people from the community during its construction, Flemming said.

The ballpark has two entrance roads and two exits, which alleviate traffic jams, White said. Parking turned into a moneymaker for the church and businesses which rent spaces for stadium events.

“It has not interfered with any church activities,” said the new Allen Temple pastor, the Rev. James Speed, who became its leader in December 2008. “During my tenure, Fluor Field has been an excellent neighbor.”

Owners, West End Stadium, routinely loan the church some of its children’s play equipment for church events and gives 20 to 25 children and church workers free tickets to three or four games per year, Speed said.

The Drive

Since the year the stadium opened, the team has attracted 300,000-plus fans yearly, according to attendance figures on the South Atlantic League website.

Attendance jumped by almost 215,000 the first year, 2006, compared with the last year at Municipal Stadium at the edge of town.

Fluor Field, modeled after famed Fenway Park, hit its peak in 2008 with 349,116 fans, according to its website. Attendance has see-sawed since, dropping by 46,600 in 2013 from the previous season. Yet the ballpark hosted five fewer minor-league games in 2013 than it did in 2012.

In its first year of operation, the stadium was named “Ballpark of the Year” by Ballparks.com. The annual award is given to the best new ballpark among all major, minor or independent leagues.

Brown, the stadium and team co-owner, estimates that 30 to 40 city events are held at the ballpark yearly. “There’s basically always something going on at the park, except in December and January, when it’s too cold.

“The vast majority of our events are” local, so “the community feels it’s their stadium,” Brown said.

The mayor agrees. “People see it as their stadium,” White said.

State sports writer Neil White contributed to this article. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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