Morris: Minor-league stadium will benefit Columbia

April 10, 2014 

COLUMBIA MADE A bold, and what will prove to be beneficial, move Tuesday night when it gave the go-ahead to build a minor-league baseball stadium on the Bull Street property.

It is about darned time.

Understand, this move is about much more than professional baseball returning to Columbia. This is about the development of 165 acres in downtown that has done little but grow weeds for some 25 years. Beyond that, it is about the city of Columbia investing in its future and moving forward with great vision.

“I’m just very proud,” said a beaming Mayor Steve Benjamin shortly after the 4-3 vote by city council approved a $35 million, 8,000-seat stadium that will serve as a multi-purpose venue. “The people of Columbia deserve this. We can do it. We can do it right. We can’t always just say no.”

His last statement should resonate with not only the citizens of Columbia but those of the Midlands. For far too many years – OK, decades – Columbia has sat on the sideline while other cities re-invented themselves and became “cool” places to visit and live.

Greenville did it. Charlotte did it. Durham, Winston-Salem, Greensboro. The list of cities that have used minor-league baseball stadiums as a catalyst to revitalize their downtowns and change their identities is seemingly endless.

Greenville and Durham probably serve as the best examples of how it worked. By the 1990s, both cities faced the reality that their economic foundation had crumbled. The mills had closed in Greenville. The tobacco industry collapsed in Durham.

Both recognized their cities were dying. Greenville invested in its downtown and, eventually, welcomed a baseball stadium. Durham built the stadium first, then watched the downtown grow around it.

As Mayor Benjamin is quick to point out, the growth rate of those cities steadily increased, while Columbia’s has remained relatively stagnant. The other cities actively made their towns more attractive to people who wanted to locate their businesses there, or wanted to live there.

In every case, great risk was involved. There were no guarantees in allocating millions of dollars for a ballpark that a return on the investment would be realized. The same holds true for Columbia in this venture. It is a calculated gamble, one Columbia seldom takes.

In Columbia’s defense, the city generally has not needed to take such risks. Because state government, USC and Fort Jackson are located here, Columbia has been insulated from economic downturns.

“My impression is that the city, over time, has been overly risk-averse because it has those (stable) institutions, and those are good enough,” says Jason Freier, the CEO of Hardball Capital, which will own the team and operate the stadium. “Things were never bad enough to take risks.”

For that reason, Columbia residents long have lived without some of the amenities and attractive draws of neighboring cities. As a lifetime Columbia resident, Councilman Brian Newman understands that.

“I grew up in Columbia and always wondered why we didn’t have certain things,” says Newman, who returned to Columbia after his undergraduate studies in Atlanta. “During my time in law school (at USC), I saw young professionals leave Columbia, whether that be for Charlotte or Charleston or some other city in the Southeast, because we don’t have the things they are interested in.”

If nothing else, the new multi-purpose ballpark and Bull Street development will provide Columbia with a much-needed social gathering place. The only such gathering place today is Williams-Brice Stadium for seven home football games a year. That audience is relatively select, generally only for those who can afford membership in the Gamecock Club, parking fees, season tickets and seat-licensing fees.

This ballpark will be for the citizens of Columbia and the Midlands, a place for family affordable entertainment through 70 home baseball games a year, concerts, road races, business meetings, picnics, etc.

The ballpark will draw folks to the former state mental hospital property, which had been the largest parcel of undeveloped land in any downtown east of the Mississippi River. The ballpark also means Columbia will no longer be the second-largest city in the country without a professional sports team, behind only Baton Rouge, La.

“I know we can do better than that,” Benjamin says. “For people to say it can be done in Winston-Salem, it can be done in Charlotte, it can be done in Durham, it can be done in Myrtle Beach and Greenville and Charleston, but it can’t be done here in Columbia, I refuse to accept that premise.”

Finally, Columbia has a leader and three councilmen with courage and vision. Tuesday, ultimately, will prove a grand and historic day for the city of Columbia and the citizens of the Midlands.

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