Benjamin, Davis, Newman, Runyan: Baseball and a seamless city

Guest ColumnistsApril 6, 2014 

Sooner or later, every city must decide, “Are we just going to survive, or are we going to thrive?”

On Tuesday, after months of public discussion, deliberation and debate, Columbia City Council will have the opportunity to thrive by giving final approval to a public/private partnership to build a first-class, multi-use sports and entertainment venue that will host year-round events, jump start the largest development project of its kind east of the Mississippi River and bring minor league baseball back to Columbia.

This is an important decision, and none of us takes it lightly. But we’ve done our homework.

We’ve held more than 20 public hearings, input sessions, community forums and neighborhood meetings throughout the city because we wanted to hear every point of view, including those we may not fully agree with.

We’ve gone through two independent studies from nationally recognized firms examining the costs and economic development benefits of the multi-use facility and the Bull Street development, and they both confirm the projects will create jobs, grow the economy and generate millions of dollars in new revenue.

We’ve reviewed nearly 20 lease and licensing agreements from across the nation. We’ve contacted other cities that have built downtown minor league ballparks to learn from their experiences. We’ve brought in industry and legal specialists to help us negotiate the best deal possible, and we’ve found a way to pay for it without raising taxes, using water and sewer funds or reducing funding to organizations currently receiving hospitality tax dollars. These are the fundamental concerns we’ve discussed at length and in detail during our many public meetings.

After listening for months and including recommendations from supporters and critics alike, we have further delayed the final vote for more than a month, in the true spirit of compromise.

There is no more due diligence to perform. It’s time to act.

You see, as individuals, we all see something different in this project and this opportunity.

Councilman Davis sees the single largest new economic development project north of Elmwood in 40 years; positioned less than five minutes away from North Main Plaza and the Historic Monteith School, it will spur historic new private investment up and down our North Main and Farrow Road corridors.

Councilman Newman sees a hub of activity that not only will create thousands of new jobs and increase property values throughout District 2, but allow us to leverage new initiatives like Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program to revive our public parks and engage at-risk youth in productive alternatives to drugs and gang violence. He sees this project helping secure our future by providing new youth activities and positive role models to mold a new generation of leaders.

Councilman Runyan, a financial professional, sees a public-private partnership that leverages funds that by law can be used only on this type of projects and caps the city’s total potential costs at $29 million, protecting us from cost overruns. He sees a good investment with an incredibly high potential return for taxpayers, generating new development as well as new hospitality and property tax revenues that we can reinvest in our economy and infrastructure.

And Mayor Benjamin sees the opportunity we’ve been waiting for: to revitalize our downtown urban core, to grow our capacity to support new creative community endeavors across the city and, by engaging local artists in the design, create a sense of place that gives the young professionals, families and retirees who will drive our economy for the next half century a real reason to call this city home.

While these individual opportunities are reason enough to vote for the facility, together they represent something larger: the chance to leverage 181 acres of undeveloped land and transform downtown into a beating heart so powerful it can bring our city together, remove the barriers that separate us and fill in the gaps that keep us apart.

Yes, it will help create hundreds of millions of dollars in new wages for local workers, generate $1.2 billion in annual economic impact and grow our hospitality tax fund while creating an outdoor venue for the arts and entertainment unlike anything we have today. That’s huge.

But that pales in comparison to the benefits of being a connected and united city, a seamless city where what is good for one neighborhood is good for all.

Last week, City Council took a strong step forward by voting unanimously to adopt the Devine Street-Fort Jackson Boulevard commercial node plan, which called for investing significant public dollars to support private catalyst projects in order to create “a more vibrant, ‘24/7’ environment where business can thrive.”

Let us bring this same intense focus to building every corner of Columbia — especially her heart.

Mr. Benjamin is Columbia’s mayor; the other writers are City Council members. Contact Mr. Benjamin at skbenjamin@columbiasc.net, Mr. Davis at sdavis@columbiasc.net, Mr. Newman at bdnewman@columbiasc.net and Mr. Runyan at carunyan@columbiasc.net.

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