Editorial: If Columbia City Council can’t craft a better deal for baseball park, nix it

04/05/2014 9:00 PM

04/04/2014 4:10 PM

IF THE COLUMBIA City Council doesn’t make the terms of an arrangement to finance a minor league baseball park much more favorable to the public than the one it tentatively approved last month, it should reject final approval Tuesday.

We understand City Council members and others who argue passionately that Columbia must take bold — even risky — actions if it is to become a thriving metropolitan city. They say the ballpark is that kind of action, declaring it the catalyst for the large mixed-use development planned for Bull Street.

What we don’t understand is why they won’t acknowledge what a bold and risky step the council already took when it agreed to fund all infrastructure — every street, water line, sewer pipe and more — to support the Bull Street project.

That’s not only bold, it’s unprecedented. The agreement the city inked with Greenville developer Bob Hughes is unique in its promise to provide all infrastructure, to the tune of at least $31.25 million. That’s not counting a couple of parking garages that could cost $26 million combined. Or contributing another $29 million of the $35 million cost of a ballpark.

Alan Kahn would have done back flips if Richland County had made such an offer when he asked for public money to build a minor league stadium at the Village at Sandhills. Wisely, it didn’t.

Local governments should not be the major backers of stadiums for professional teams; minor league parks require a particularly large investment, with minimal return.

It would be acceptable for Columbia to provide a modest, limited contribution toward a new ballpark, but that’s not where things are headed.

Last month, Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan won a 4-3 vote to give tentative approval to a contract with Atlanta-based Hardball Capital to pay $29 million for construction, with Hardball contributing $6 million. Hardball would assume greater financial risk should the stadium fail to attract the promised number of visitors or to be the catalyst it is expected to be.

The $29 million public investment is far too much; worse, practically all money the city would receive — annual fees from Hardball, city event revenue, naming rights, etc. — would be used to make stadium improvements. None would go toward retiring the city’s debt.

Why is this acceptable? It’s not worth the public taking on such risk to ensure that a private baseball team profits. If a ballpark is to be built, Hardball and Mr. Hughes should do what other investors do all the time: put up their own money or seek private partners.

While City Council committed more than we’d like for infrastructure at Bull Street, it was a defensible, bold step aimed at boosting the local economy. But this obsession with being the major benefactor for a minor league baseball team is a far-too-risky detour.

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