Mayor Steve Benjamin says he is in serious talks with a minor league baseball owner to bring a team to Columbia and could present a stadium funding proposal to City Council as early as this fall.
Benjamin told The State he plans to visit later this month a stadium that the undisclosed owner has built in the Midwest. It and its public/private funding model could serve as a template for a new stadium here, he said.
The stadium would be the centerpiece of the redeveloped 181-acre State Hospital campus on Bull Street, considered to be the most significant land deal in the city’s modern history. Bull Street developer Bob Hughes of Greenville has said a stadium is a key to the development’s success.
“We have a rich baseball history here and we have to find a way to perpetuate it,” Benjamin said.
BACK TO 1892
Professional baseball in Columbia stretches back to 1892 when the Columbia Senators played for one season in a very early version of the South Atlantic League, commonly known as the “Sally” league.
Teams were fielded under various names through the early years – Skyscrapers, Gamecocks, Comics and Comers – most often with Sally League affiliation.
In 1927, the Comers were a Sally League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss built a new stadium off Assembly Street, now known as Capital City Stadium.
Except for a brief period in the 1930s, Columbia was a Sally League town.
In 1983 the Columbia Mets began playing in Capital City Stadium and in 1993 they became the Capital City Bombers.
In 2005, efforts to build a new stadium for the Bombers fell through and the team moved to Greenville, where they became the Greenville Drive. The team and its new stadium became a centerpiece of the redevelopment of that city’s Main Street.
Bull Street developer Bob Hughes was the architect of Greenville’s renaissance and has said he hopes to use the same mix of baseball, retail, office and residential development at the State Hospital site.
Hughes has said he wouldn’t be involved in the talks to land a team, but that he believes any team would move here if a stadium is built.
“If the city wants a team, the city can get a team,” he has said.
Since 2005, the Columbia Blowfish — a non-professional team affiliated with the Coastal Plains League that features college players using wooden bats — have played in Capital City Stadium. The Blowfish play a two-month, 56-game schedule as opposed to a professional team’s five month, 140-game schedule.
However, the city plans to sell the Capital City Stadium site to a developer for $1 million. The developer had first marketed the property for a Wal-Mart, but that deal cratered and he is now trying to find another buyer.
Blowfish owner Bill Shanahan said he is not involved in talks for a professional team, and has floated a proposal for a Blowfish stadium in Lexington.
“I’m just looking for a permanent home for the Blowfish,” he said.
A Sally League town
Benjamin said he has spoken with several owners of Carolina League and Sally League teams but is presently in more serious talks with a single owner. He would not name the owner.
The Carolina League features eight Class A, or “High A,” teams mostly in the Carolinas and Virginia. The Myrtle Beach Pelicans are a member of that league. The Sally League also is a Class A league, but is considered “Low A,” a step below the High A teams in terms of professional players’ promotions.
The most likely candidate from the Carolina League is the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats, an Atlanta Braves affiliate that recently was heading to Wilmington, N.C. until voters there turned back a bond issue for a stadium.
The Sally League features 14 teams up and down the East Coast and its Southern Division includes nearby teams like Greenville, the Charleston Riverdogs, Savannah Sand Gnats and Augusta GreenJackets. Historically, Columbia has been a Sally League town and experts say it would be the best fit for a team here.
The most likely scenario would be for the owner of a poorly attended franchise with an old stadium to move their team here – a fairly common occurrence in the minor leagues.
“That’s what usually happens,” said John Manuel, editor of Baseball America.
LOOKING TO MOVE?
The teams with the lowest attendance in the Sally League are Maryland’s Hagerstown Suns (1,040 per game), North Carolina’s Kannapolis Intimidators (1,880) and Georgia’s Savannah Sand Gnats (2,043).
The Sand Gnats and Suns play in stadiums that were built in 1926 and 1930 respectively. Kannapolis’ stadium was built in 1995.
Manuel said that the Hagerstown team likely is heading to Fredericksburg, Va., and Savannah’s team also is a candidate to move.
“Hagerstown and Savannah have come up in the recent past,” he said. “Georgia has struggled with (keeping) minor league teams. Augusta and Savannah are the old guard who are hanging on. And the Kannapolis team has always struggled with its identity.”
It usually just takes a new stadium to attract a team. And although USC has the new Carolina Stadium, mixing professional baseball into a top flight collegiate facility is rare. Sharing revenue on concessions and advertising – even if a deal could be worked out – would cut into both teams bottom lines, Manuel said.
“Whatever minor team that would be there would be a rental,” he said, referring to the team having to pay USC to play there. “They would be second fiddle in what matters most, the money. A college sharing a stadium with a full season professional team doesn’t happen often and when it does both sides want to end it as soon as possible.”
But without a stadium, no deal on moving a team is possible and funding a stadium could be problematic.
Benjamin said he believes a stadium could be built for $20 million, but that would be on the lowest end of the stadium scale.
USC’s Carolina Stadium cost $36 million. El Paso, Texas, which was without a minor-league team affiliated with a major-league organization since 2004, recently approved a hotel tax increase to fund a $50 million downtown stadium.
Construction is under way in Charlotte for a $54 million stadium with $38 million coming from the Triple-A club and a $16 million contribution from the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. And other recent stadium costs included $21.5 million in Greensboro, N.C., $48.7 million in Winston-Salem, N.C., and $53 million in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Benjamin said he is weighing a variety of options, from hospitality taxes to a surcharge on tickets.
“I am open to listening to all proposals,” he said.
For now, City Council members are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“I think it’s exciting, and I would like know more about it,” said Tameika Isaac Devine. “I think it can be a huge draw for downtown Columbia, but we need to understand who’s going to build it and who’s going to pay for it.”
Devine said she wouldn’t support a special taxing district called a TIF to pay for a park and wouldn’t support using hospitality taxes “unless we had proof of increased income” from those taxes.
Council member Leona Plaugh said she believes that the city should not be taking the lead in landing a team.
“That ought to be led by the private sector,” she said. “The private sector should do a feasibility study and provide that to the city for review. Only then would we be in a position to decide if it made economic sense.”
Plaugh said she might not support using hospitality taxes.
“Our legacy project has to be Finlay Park and bringing it back to the condition it needs to be. Would that exclude a park? I don’t know.”
Benjamin said that at the moment he is “a committee of one” on council in support of a stadium. “So I have to build consensus or change the form of government.”
He said that any owner “would have to have some skin in the game,” meaning using his or her own money to build the facility.
“The real question is how much of a public/private partnership this will be,” he said.
The mayor envisions that Hughes would donate the land for the park. The city would then provide the infrastructure and help with the cost of construction. The team owner would be responsible for all maintenance and upgrades.
Benjamin said any stadium proposal would include an agreement with the owner that the stadium would host a variety of events such as concerts, little league tournaments or small college games.
“Whatever we build here will have to be a multi-use facility,” he said.
Council member Cameron Runyon agreed.
“You need to have people in it 300 days out of the year,” he said. “We’re going to have to see that kind of business plan. How are we going to keep people in it throughout the day? It can’t just be about baseball.”