Columbia faces deadlines & penalties in baseball stadium contract

cleblanc@thestate.comJune 13, 2014 

Greenville developer Bob Hughes’ master plan for the Bull Street site, showing a site for a possible ballpark/mixed-use facility

HUGHES DEVELOPMENT

  • Ballpark construction contract

    Key provisions of the stadium contract that on Tuesday faces the first of two votes by City Council.

    Team timetables: Apply to minor-league baseball by July 15 to bring a team to town; get final approval by Oct. 1.

    Master developer requirements: Deed the 10 to 12 acres for the stadium to the city 30 days before construction begins.

    City Hall commitments: The ballpark must be completed by March 1, 2016. The city faces $50,000 per week penalties if the stadium is not ready by that date. But the penalty may be passed along to the construction company.

  • Bringing team to Columbia

    Jason Freier, owner of Hardball Capital, said again Friday that he’s in a position to buy a third team to move to Columbia if the city of Savannah commits to a new stadium for his Georgia team.

    Freier said he’s not in active negotiations for a third team. But talks he’s already held make him “comfortable” that he could acquire a team to add to those he owns in Savannah and Fort Wayne, Ind.

    Freier said he’s made a commitment to the city of Savannah to keep the Sand Gnats there at least through the 2015 minor-league season now that opening the Columbia ballpark by April of next year is off the table.

    Savannah’s city council has commissioned a feasibility study for a new stadium. The findings are is due by late August, Freier said.

    “We are hopeful that we will keep a team in Savannah for many years,” he said.

The construction contract for a $35 million publicly funded baseball stadium requires the selection of a minor-league team by October and exposes the city to $50,000-per-week penalties if the ballpark is not ready by March 1, 2016.

But the draft contract has a provision that allows the city to pass late penalties to the contractor the city selects to build the stadium.

Other key elements in the contract, on which City Council is to cast its first vote Tuesday, are:

• Bull Street master developer Bob Hughes must deed to the city the 10 to 12 acres he is donating for the ballpark at least 30 days before construction begins. Construction is tentatively set to start late this fall.

• The city could exceed its $29 million ballpark investment if it costs extra to strengthen the concourse so it can withstand the weight of hotel or office space above stadium suites, as Hughes has proposed. Any such additional expense for structural integrity would not come from the $29 million.

• Hughes and team owner Jason Freier assume all cost of stadium-specific additions or amenities that exceed the $35 million price tag. Freier already has signed a contract that his Hardball Capital company will provide $6 million toward building the year-round facility. The city will own the stadium. Hardball Capital will run the stadium under a separate, 30-year contract with the city.

• Freier must submit his formal application to the minor league baseball organization bring a team to Columbia by July 15.

Officials from the city and Freier’s company will meet at least every two weeks after the stadium opens to coordinate events at the facility.

• The city pledges to protect the club’s and Hughes’ propriety information from open-records requests and to notify them if the city receives any open-records requests about the stadium.

The 49-page contract, which addresses a range of issues from managing the plaza around the stadium to testing for soil contamination, is scheduled for a second and final council vote on June 24.

The city, Freier and Hughes would be signatories to the contract.

So far, every vote on key decisions about the stadium have split the council, resulting in years-long commitments that sometimes pass by one- or two-vote margins.

City Hall released a draft of the contract this week by posting it on the city’s website.

The late-penalty provision states, “In the event the venue (ballpark) is not completed by the substantial completion date (March 1, 2015) .. and club is not in default ... city shall pay to club a liquidated damages amount of $50,000 per week during the period of such delay plus any fines or penalties assessed (by Major League Baseball). ...”

Late charges are intended to compensate Hardball Capital for money it spends on team salaries, travel and lodging as well as the debt payments it must make on its investment in the stadium while the team cannot play on its home field.

Freier said Friday the $50,000 figure is “very much on the low end” of similar provisions in other stadium construction contracts.

“If we don’t have a place for events, $50,000 wouldn’t even come close to covering our costs,” he said.

Assistant city manager Missy Gentry said the $50,000 figure surprised her during contract negotiations.

“I ... was a little bit blown away by the number,” said Gentry, City Hall’s liaison for the entire Bull Street neighborhood project.

She said the contract’s requirement that Freier abide by a clear timetable for bringing a team to town answers skeptics.

“A lot of people questioned ... whether a team was really coming here,” Gentry said.

Freier repeated his pledge to the city. “We’re absolutely going to have a team in Columbia for 30 years.”

The cost overrun provision shifts much of the burden to Hardball Capital and Hughes Development Corp., she said. “If they want to build something that drives it to $36 million, they can pay for it. This gives them that flexibility if they want to put more money in the game.

“But that’s not going to happen. We’re building a $35 million stadium.”

The city is moving ahead with other timetables on key decision related to or separate from the construction contract.

An initial vote on using meal-taxes to pay for the stadium is tentatively scheduled for June 24.

Architectural firms interested in designing the ballpark have until Monday to submit their plans. Council could select a firm at its July 15 meeting.

Ballpark noise and lighting studies are to be done this summer. Hardball Capital is paying for them, Gentry said.

In July, the city will ask whether any investors are interested in building two parking garages on the Bull Street property or in teaming with the city to meet that commitment to Hughes.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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