Bolton: On baseball being king in Columbia and other tidbits

Associate EditorApril 17, 2014 

— COLUMBIA CITY Council’s decision to plant a minor league baseball stadium in the middle of the old State Hospital site on Bull Street fundamentally changes the focus of the mega-development some say could transform the Midlands.

Remember the transformative mixed-use development predicted for the site? While that’s still the plan, make no mistake, folks: This is now about baseball. What else can it be about once you plunk a ballpark in the middle? A ballpark will always be … a ballpark.

A while back, developer Bob Hughes talked about how potential tenants were drafting plans based on baseball. He even said that a firm considering converting the Babcock Building into a hotel might pull out if there was no baseball stadium.

Here’s the upshot: Once that stadium is built, it’s always going to have to be occupied and vibrant or it will negatively affect the entire development.

What if Hardball Capital, which the city has contracted with to bring a team to Columbia and operate the stadium, doesn’t make it for some reason? The city will immediately be in the hunt for a new ball team.

The fact that the development will always depend on an occupied baseball stadium got me to thinking: As good a deal as Hardball Capital got, it’s likely to get even more favorable treatment going forward. But it’s locked in to a 30-year deal, you say? Yeah, right. I wonder how many times that deal will be amended in the first five years.

If Hardball goes under, expect the owners of the next team that comes in to get their own sweet deal. Why? Because a ballpark always will be a ballpark, and once you’ve put yourself in the position of not only being dependent on it but also subsidizing it, you’ll always subsidize it.

These thoughts were among several that went through my mind last week during the special called meeting at which City Council approved the deal to contribute $29 million toward the ballpark while Hardball Capital of Atlanta contributes $6 million.

Here are some other thoughts and odds and ends that stuck out during the meeting:

•  There’s still a chance that those who had been calling for a cost-benefit analysis of this project will get their wish, although belatedly.

Critics had asked City Council to delay a final vote on the ballpark so the study could be conducted. But a majority of council members, led by Mayor Steve Benjamin, said they didn’t need a study to take a final vote; enough study had been done on the economic impact of the project, they said.

But the analysis to determine the costs to the city and the benefits that will come from the development still might happen, though not just because critics asked for it.

City Manager Teresa Wilson and city staff have requested it. Ms. Wilson said that staff have been wanting to have an analysis done for a while but did not have the necessary data.

That would be data from Mr. Hughes, who just recently agreed to provide it.

What’s the use in doing an analysis after the council has already decided? Ms. Wilson said the $50,000 study would be a useful tool as the city continues its involvement in the development of Bull Street and the ballpark.

•  Some people who spoke at last week’s meeting continued to repeat misconceptions of how the city can spend hospitality taxes, which will be used to fund the ballpark. I’ve heard many people say that with basic services lacking in the city and people having so many needs, the $29 million should be spent on such priorities instead of baseball. While I agree the city should be able to use this money to meet more pressing service needs, the 2 percent tax on prepared food can be spent only on tourism-related items — until the Legislature decides otherwise.

 During discussion about how the city would fulfill its financial obligations to the stadium, it was pointed out that the agreement says the city’s full faith and credit would not be on the line. Now, legally, that might be true. But politically, is that true?

What happens if the ballpark is in the final phase of completion and the city’s $29 million and Hardball’s $6 million have been spent? Will the city sit back and say, “Nope, can’t do it” if Hardball says it’s tapped out? And what if the ballclub goes belly up five or 10 years down the road? Who do you think will pay the freight until the next team is landed, if one ever is? Who’ll pay the routine maintenance and other costs that were Hardball’s responsibility?

Let’s hope I’m wrong and that there is no circumstance, no matter how dire, under which the city’s full faith and credit can come into play.

•  Two speakers last week, as well as a few of our letter writers, have suggested there should have been a referendum on the ballpark. No. No. No.

It’s City Council’s job to make such decisions. Voters choose council members to serve on their behalf; they’re to learn and understand the business of the city — from taxing and spending to zoning and planning — and make decisions based on the knowledge and understanding they’ve gathered.

Placing the baseball stadium on the ballot would defeat the purpose of representative democracy. Let the council decide, and if the people don’t like the decision, they can take it up with council members at the polls.

A former City Council member pointed out to me that the damage could already be done by election time. That’s true. But that’s the case with any elected body at any level. Our system is a risky one based on trust: We trust the voters to decide who should serve. We trust those leaders to take care of the public’s business. And, based on how they perform, we trust the voters to decide whether the leaders should be re-elected or shown the door.

A final thought: While many people spoke passionately in favor of a ballpark and urged City Council to be bold and approve it for the children, for the city’s future, for the jobs, for … you get the picture, they didn’t address the financial details. My point? While people were supporting baseball, they weren’t demanding that it had to come by way of a deal that favors Hardball over city taxpayers.

They would have been equally happy if City Council had negotiated more aggressively in taxpayers’ favor. I never have gotten the feeling that this council really went to bat for taxpayers and said to Hardball, “We won’t cross this line.”

I know lots of research was done and city officials looked at other cities’ agreements with minor-league teams in constructing this deal. But Columbia needed a deal for Columbia. We didn’t get that.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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