April 7, 2014

Battle for Columbia baseball stadium has new front

As if the battle over a taxpayer-built stadium was not heated enough, the city of Columbia might borrow an additional $2 million for 30 years to make downtown improvements not directly related to baseball.

As if the battle over a taxpayer-built stadium was not heated enough, the city of Columbia might borrow an additional $2 million for 30 years to make downtown improvements not directly related to baseball.

If approved, the additions would kick the loan up to $31 million instead of the $29 million City Council has been discussing for weeks. The loan is to be repaid from meal taxes collected mostly at city restaurants and bars.

An enlarged loan also would add about $87,000 yearly in interest and principal the city would pay over the life of the loan, Jeff Palen, Columbia’s chief financial officer, said Monday.

The extra $2 million would go toward a mile-long pedestrian pathway that would wind through old neighborhoods near the proposed Bull Street neighborhood and for a new entranceway at the Columbia Museum of Art on Main Street, Mayor Steve Benjamin said.

City Council is poised Tuesday to cast the second and last vote on a contract to build and operate a $35 million, year-round stadium in the center of the vast Bull Street neighborhood. The contract with Hardball Capital of Atlanta to run the facility received preliminary approval March 5 by a one-vote margin.

Tuesday’s vote again is likely to be 4-3 despite intense, last-minute lobbying from proponents and detractors. Council members have shown little outward sign of changing their initial votes, but efforts to reach some of them were unsuccessful Monday. The four-person majority led by Benjamin spelled out its support in a column that appeared Monday on the editorial page of The State newspaper.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who until recent months tended to vote with Benjamin, said Monday she will remain steadfastly opposed.

“My vote on baseball?” she said when asked by a reporter. “No.” Inserting an additional $2 million into the discussion muddies the already divisive debate, Devine said.

Council members Devine, Moe Baddourah and Leona Plaugh have said they would not support the loan unless a cost/benefit analysis shows the public investment will pay off. City Hall staffers are in the early stages of seeking the analysis that would take weeks to complete.

Benjamin has said economic impact and feasibility studies already completed are sufficient to show that a ball field would become a catalyst to millions in tax-paying income for city coffers from surrounding development. The stadium itself would become a new amenity that would improve Columbia’s quality of life, especially for young professionals, he has said.

Adding $2 million to the loan is on Tuesday’s agenda only as a resolution. If approved, it would amount to a statement of the will of council – not as one of the required two votes to pay for the stadium.

Benjamin said adding those two projects would allow the city to “take advantange of the economies of scale.”

All but $500,000 of the extra money would go to the pathway that would be marked by distinctive sidewalks, signs, lighting and historic markers, and would connect the homes of civil rights leader Modjeska Simkins, Mann-Simons, Seibels, Hampton-Preston, Robert Mills and former president Woodrow Wilson, according to a draft proposal drawn up in 2012 as part of a tax increment finance (TIF) district for north Columbia.

The museum would get a half-million dollars for the entrance and to remodel some of the interior, Benjamin said. Efforts to reach top museum administrators for details were unsuccessful Monday.

As the baseball battle rages, council members have received a legal opinion from the city attorney’s office stating that Columbia’s deal with Greenville developer Bob Hughes to construct the Bull Street neighborhood does not obligate Columbia to build a baseball stadium.

“The agreement provides some latitude to the city to not proceed with the financing, construction and/or lease negotiation if it were determined that the project was not financially feasible or provided sufficient benefits to the city,” city attorney Ken Gaines wrote in a March 12 memo obtained by The State newspaper.

The Bull Street agreement only requires the city “to negotiate in good faith ... ,” Gaines wrote.

Gaines goes on to write a cautionary note in the two-page memo: “However, this is a matter of interpretation and could be the subject of dispute with the other party to the contract.”

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