April 12, 2014

Editorial: Columbia’s minor league baseball park deal disappointing

WHILE FAR from surprising, Columbia City Council’s approval of a baseball park deal that heavily favors a minor-league team owner is disappointing.

WHILE FAR from surprising, Columbia City Council’s approval of a baseball park deal that heavily favors a minor-league team owner is disappointing.

The management contract for a city-owned ballpark calls for Hardball Capital of Atlanta to bring a minor-league team to Columbia and to operate the facility. The city will contribute $29 million toward construction of a $35 million ballpark, which would be available for events other than baseball; Hardball’s contribution is $6 million.

Although Hardball supposedly assumes greater financial risk should the stadium fail to attract the promised number of visitors or to be the catalyst it is expected to be, practically all money the city is to receive — annual fees from Hardball, city event revenue, naming rights, etc. — will be used to make capital improvements to the stadium. None would go toward retiring the debt on the public stadium.

As we’ve said all along, government shouldn’t be the chief financier of a stadium for pro sports. Columbia should have sought a much more limited role. After all, the city already had committed to spend tens of millions of dollars to provide infrastructure for the entire Bull Street development project.

Quite frankly, Greenville developer Bob Hughes and Hardball Capital owner Jason Freier asked too much of Columbia taxpayers — and got too much. We don’t blame them; they are in business to make money and are acting in their own best interests. It is City Council’s job — a job it failed to do — to look out for taxpayers.

While we believe the council majority is well-intentioned, there is no other way to put it than to say that the elected body and those who helped build this deal on the public’s behalf were out negotiated.

And we can’t understate the effect a split council — the agreement was approved 4-3 — had on the quality of this deal. The majority that ushered the ballpark deal through — Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan — showed little interest in pushing for a deal more favorable to the city.

A more unified, focused council might have had better results at crafting a deal that required the baseball team owner to put more skin in the game. Considering that the city is investing far more than it should, a unified council willing to negotiate more aggressively could have made a lesser, yet still attractive, offer that Mr. Freier — and Mr. Hughes, for that matter — couldn’t walk away from, even if it meant putting more of his own money in the pot; after all, this enhances his ability to profit.

As the baseball project and the Bull Street development move forward, City Council must be vigilant in protecting taxpayers’ interests and in holding Hardball and Hughes Development to their promises. In as much as it has embraced the risks involved in backing the overall Bull Street development as well as a pro ballpark, the council’s legacy will hinge on the success or failure of these ventures.

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