April 8, 2014

Columbia City Council votes 4-3 to build a baseball stadium

The 4-3 vote to hire Hardball Capital of Atlanta to bring a minor-league team to Columbia and to operate the stadium is the first step toward spending $29 million in public money for a $35 million year-round facility.

By the slimmest of margins, Columbia City Council decided Tuesday night to authorize a management contract for a city-owned baseball stadium in the yet-to-be-built Bull Street neighborhood downtown.

The 4-3 vote to hire Hardball Capital of Atlanta to bring a minor-league team to Columbia and to operate the stadium is the first step toward spending $29 million in public money for a $35 million year-round facility.

An initial vote on spending the money is likely sometime in May, the city’s chief financial officer said after the 10:10 p.m. vote by the same council members who supported the Hardball contract in the preliminary vote March 5.

Mayor Steve Benjamin has led the charge to reach a deal with Hardball and to build a publicly owned stadium in the center of the former state mental health agency campus.

Others voting for the contract were councilmen Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan.

Voting “no” were councilwomen Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh and Councilman Moe Baddourah.

The binding vote followed a failed attempt by the minority to delay the final contract until a cost/benefit analysis is completed.

That study will still be done. But it’s likely to be weeks to a few months before such an analysis will be completed because a consultant must be selected and must have access to development figures from master Bull Street developer Bob Hughes. City manager Teresa Wilson said Tuesday night the analysis itself is likely to take six weeks.

“This type of venue is worth it for a capital city,” Davis said in explaining his vote. The city gambled that public investment in the Vista would pay off, and it did. “It’s time to move (public investment) elsewhere (in Columbia),” Davis said.

Devine said she worries about committing so much money to Bull Street and baseball. “I pray this is going to work out,” she told an audience at City Hall that dwindled after 41/2 hours from standing-room-only to many empty seats by the time of the vote.

Runyan said his initial skepticism melted away as he learned more about the deal. “We will have to stand accountable on whether or not we made the right decision,” he said. “I’m OK with that.”

Plaugh called the facility “a divisive multi-use entertainment venue” and questioned several provisions of the contract. The only change Tuesday in the language of the contract was Plaugh’s suggestion to clarify that the city’s investment will be capped at $29 million.

The city will borrow the money to build the stadium – with a $6 million contribution from Hardball. City Hall will repay the loan with meal-tax revenue for the next 30 years.

Baddourah characterized Hardball owner Jason Freier as “a man (who) comes riding from Atlanta on a horse ... asking for your money.”

Council once again heard impassioned pleas from residents on both sides of the hotly contested debate.

Justin Young, who said he lives near the Bull Street site, said, “I can’t fathom how we can look at the poverty in the city and we want to spend $35 million to build a baseball stadium.”

A proponent told council that, just as in the movie “Field of Dreams,” it the city builds a stadium people will go to it. Backers and Freier say it will attract about 500,000 visitors annually.

Opponent Rusty DePass said he found biblical inspiration for conducting a cost/benefit analysis.

Willie Washington told council the Benedict College community wants a baseball stadium.

The battle over baseball has been almost as heated as December’s fight over a strong-mayor decision – which lost by a sound margin.

Proponents and opponents of a taxpayer-funded ballpark have lit up social media with their positions on the issue, intensely lobbied council members and media representatives, formed organizations and exchanged barbs on the Internet and at dozens of public forums since last fall.

Terms like “boondoggle,” “backroom deals” and “obstructionists” are among the publishable descriptions that have pepper the conversation.

Tuesday’s vote at a specially called meeting also came against a backdrop of tensions and conflicts on council as well as public strains between the city manager and a shifting contingent on the elected body.

Many longtime Columbians say the state of affairs at City Hall is the worse they can recall.

Benjamin has become the face of the stadium debate, as he was for the push to change the city’s government from a strong-manager form to a strong-mayor one.

The contract with Hardball, a 42-page document, was changed since the initial vote to allay some of the criticism of a sweetheart deal for Freier and Hughes.

Among the key changes are:

•  Linking Hardball to taxable investment benchmarks for Hughes. The benchmarks are $30 million, $45 million and $60 million in taxable construction around the stadium, which itself would be tax exempt because its publicly owned.
•  Adding representatives from Columbia neighborhoods and from the corporation that wins naming rights for the ballpark to an advisory committee that is to review management of the facility.
•  Requiring Hardball to pay all utility costs for its events and reasonable utility bills for city events.

Still, detractors argue that taxpayer money should not be used to build a stadium that a private company would use for its profit-making business.

Proponents counter that such a public amenity in the heart of downtown would attract commercial and residential construction that would produce millions of dollars in taxes and business license fees for years to come.

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