Columbia faces final decision Tuesday on minor-league baseball stadium contract

cleblanc@thestate.comApril 6, 2014 

— Whether the cry of “play ball” will waft across a fancy, new, taxpayer-owned stadium in downtown Columbia comes to a final vote Tuesday.

City Council will consider an updated version of a contract to build a $35 million, year-round, minor league stadium and entertainment venue.

The contract does two new key things since a deeply divided council gave it an initial approval March 4 by a 4-3 margin:

• It ties the team owner more closely to the success of the proposed surrounding Bull Street neighborhood.

• It enlarges an oversight committee to include representatives of Columbia neighborhoods and the corporation that buys naming rights.

The 42-page document would govern the city’s relationship with Atlanta-based Hardball Capital.

Indications are the final vote will be as divided as the first despite the tweaks to the document that followed a month of lobbying by opponents. Councilman Cameron Runyan – once highly suspect of the financing plan – said late last week he will stick by his initial vote supporting the ballpark.

Council must vote separately on the financing package – a $29 million loan to be repaid by the city’s meal-tax revenue over 30 years.

The primary point of contention for Tuesday’s vote remains whether City Hall will conduct a cost/benefit analysis before the final vote in a specially called meeting.

Yet critics, including Councilwoman Leona Plaugh, also take issue with contract provisions dealing with revenue and cost-sharing formulas between Hardball and the city for a range of services. She compiled a 22-inch-long, color-coded chart that dissects her concerns about the contract.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, council’s strongest advocate for a public stadium, views the changes as showing “a true spirit of compromise.” He says a cost-benefit study should not delay the ultimate decision.

“We’ve sought and received public input from across Columbia,” Benjamin said in a statement last week. “We’ve included recommendations from all sides ... we’ve patiently debated the merits as a community over several months – even delayed a final vote for over a month.”

Tied to the greater success

If the document is approved as drafted, Hardball Capital owner Jason Freier of Atlanta would pay up to $6 million, plus an out-of-pocket commitment in the event construction that is not considered part of the stadium fails to reach several benchmarks of “taxable” investment.

The term “taxable” was added after critics of the deal insisted it would better protect the $29 million public investment.

Previously, the term was “private” investment, which skeptics said could include, for example, medical offices affiliated with a hospital, even though they would be tax exempt.

The benchmarks, however, have not changed. They are intended to closely link the tax-exempt ballpark to the success of the surrounding 165-acre neighborhood that master developer Bob Hughes is seeking to build. Hughes has tied the neighborhood’s success to the stadium.

The first benchmark would require Hardball to pay $516,000 annually into a city fund that could be used to offset the cost of public utilities elsewhere in the Bull Street neighborhood, said assistant city manager Missy Gentry.

Hardball would be required to make the $516,000 payments each year that Hughes’ taxable investment on the greater Bull Street site never reaches $30 million.

Freier’s payments into the fund would shrink to $258,000 yearly at the next benchmark: $45 million in taxable investment. His commitment ends once Hughes produces $60 million in taxable property.

Critics say the benchmarks are meaningless because Hughes will reach those targets quickly, though he has not announced a single sales contract for any parcel in the 165-acre neighborhood.

The Greenville developer told The State newspaper on Friday that his plans call for constructing about five stories of retail, hotel and office space surrounding the 16 luxury baseball suites that are part of the Hardball contract.

Hughes estimates that each floor of the taxable property would consume 15,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet.

Enlarged advisory panel

The updated contract increases the membership from five to seven on a Board of Advisors. The board will have a role in deciding how money in a stadium maintenance and improvement fund is spent.

New appointees from the Columbia Council of Neighborhoods, the stadium naming rights partner and a member selected by the board will join the previous four members. Those include a member named by Hughes, one named by Hardball, one named by City Council and Columbia’s chief financial officer.

Its function is to consult with Hardball and the city about stadium operations and management.

The board is required to meet monthly during the first 12 months after the stadium is open for occupancy. After that period, it must meet at least quarterly

Yet, the board, of itself, “has no power to make any decisions of any kind that bind Hardball or the city,” the contract states.

Closer look at other changes

The city is guaranteed at least 20 of its own stadium events yearly. That has not changed since the contract won tentative approval from council.

But the updated contract spells out that Hardball is responsible for the cost of all utilities at events the company sponsors, whether baseball games, concerts or other events.

Hardball also agrees to pay “reasonable and ordinary” utility costs for city-sponsored events at the facility.

The initial version would have required the city to pay all utility expenses for city events, said Gentry, who is one of the lead city staffers in negotiating the contract and is the City Hall liaison to the Bull Street neighborhood.

Should a city event require the use of the baseball video board, or fully lighting the stadium or consume large volumes of water, the city would reimburse Hardball for those expenses.

Hardball also would foot the bill of having a city fire marshal at Hardball events. But the revised contract said the city and Hardball would determine together when a fire marshal’s presence would be required.

The city also would not be guaranteed the use of one of the baseball luxury suites for city officials or their guests as stated in the earlier document. The revised contract states that city officials would get a suite or other private space when available.

A pledge to provide the city up to 45 tickets yearly to any Hardball game or event when available remains unchanged. But the seats will be the best available. The scheduling year extends from April 1 through March 30 of the following year.

The suite and tickets are intended for official city matters, such as for business recruitment efforts or for entertaining VIP visitors, according to language in the contract.

Hardball, the city and Hughes will have access to the stadium once the facility is “substantially complete” and a temporary occupancy certificate is issued.

That means team-management offices and, perhaps, concession areas and the private offices Hughes would develop likely would be ready before the ballpark is open.

Critics of the agreement have asked for far more changes. Among them:

•  Shift the cost of Hardball’s usage of a city-built parking garage to the company.

•  The city keeps all, not half, of the profits from concessions at events sponsored by the municipality.

•  The city could transfer money from the maintenance fund to pay down the $29 million loan debt if the maintenance fund accumulates more than is needed for maintenance.

•  Permit hiring city caterers for private events, rather than using Hardball’s services.

Gentry said caterer exclusivity is standard at public/private venues in Columbia and elsewhere, including at the Metropolitan Convention Center.

Key changes

The city has updated the proposed contract that will become a 30-year, binding agreement for Hardball Capital to operate a $35 million, city-owned stadium in the middle of the proposed Bull Street neighborhood. The changes include:

Linking the ballpark to taxable, private investment as part of the surrounding neighborhood. The word “taxable” ties Hardball to development that will produce tax revenue and ease taxpayers’ risk for financing the stadium.

Requiring Hardball to pay for all utility costs for its events and reasonable costs for city events.

Allowing representatives of Columbia neighborhoods and the corporation that buys stadium naming rights to join an advisory committee that reviews management of the facility.

Providing the city access when available to a luxury seat or best-available complimentary tickets to Hardball events, including baseball games.

Permitting use of parts of the stadium before it is ready for its first game.

If you go

A specially called City Council meeting for final approval of a stadium contract is scheduled for Tuesday.

When: 6 p.m.

Where: Council chambers on the 3rd floor of City Hall, 1737 Main St.

Public comments: Council’s agenda shows the public will be allowed to speak before votes are taken. Public response to the contract has been strong on both sides of the debate.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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