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Work to begin next week on stadium billed as the key to success for the large Bull Street project

Groundbreaking was held for Spirit Communications Park, the city-owned, $37 million year-round stadium that will become the home field of the minor league baseball team.
Groundbreaking was held for Spirit Communications Park, the city-owned, $37 million year-round stadium that will become the home field of the minor league baseball team. Tdominick@thestate.com

Six years in the making and following often withering public criticism, a ceremonial groundbreaking for Columbia’s baseball stadium occurred Tuesday.

“Today we’re breaking ground on more than just a venue,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said, standing at home plate in a mock up of the infield. “Today is about more than baseball.

“It’s about stepping forward with hubris and humility,” Benjamin told dozens of stadium supporters. “We are Columbia – a city of vision and hope. We are Columbia and our time is now ... and you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Jason Freier, owner of the team that is to bring professional baseball back to the Capital City, declared simply, “We are excited to finally start moving some dirt.”

Yet neither Freier nor any official at the ceremony released new details about features of the $37 million stadium or how the ballpark’s interior will look. The ballpark is intended to hold about 8,500 spectators for baseball and more for other events.

Actual digging is set to start Monday because final permit approvals are expected Wednesday, said Gregory Tucker, the city’s chief project manager for the entire 165-acre Bull Street development. Earthmoving equipment will be digging as deep as 18 feet below grade, he said.

Final construction drawings are due Feb. 27 and a construction contractor will be selected by the end of March, Tucker said.

Master Bull Street developer Bob Hughes told those at the ceremony that critics of the city-financed stadium and City Hall’s multimillion-dollar commitments to the larger complex have had their day of skepticism.

“Today is the last day anybody can ask any of those questions,” Hughes said to chuckles from the crowd. “This is the kind of courageous step that some cities don’t take,” he said recounting that he stood on the sprawling state Mental Health Department property six years ago and envisioned what some have called “a city within a city.”

City Council has committed $56 million in addition to the stadium for utilities, roads and two parking garages among other public services for the Bull Street complex. However, officials began last spring to explore privatizing new garages. Borrowing for the overall development is projected by the city to be $199 million over 30 years of loans.

Plans are for the year-round, city-owned ballpark to open by April 2016 when a yet-to-be-announced minor league team will debut a new era of professional baseball in Columbia. Freier said after Tuesday’s ceremony it would be “a few months” before he announces the team that is coming to town.

Three structures near the stadium – the Wilson building, the Leiber building and a classroom once used for the Hall Institute school – are among those to be razed, a state mental health official familiar with the project has said. Hughes’ contract with the city requires him to preserve five buildings, including the main portion and north and south wings of the Babcock Building, which dates to the mid-1880s.

The facility is to be named Spirit Communications Park after a local company that paid $3.5 million to have its name on the stadium for at least 10 years.

Taxpayers are investing $30 million to build the facility. Freier’s Hardball Capital of Atlanta is pitching in $7 million in private investment.

The price tag grew last month when Benjamin announced that Freier was adding $1 million to his $6 million portion.

The city’s share grew from $29 million, after Hughes agreed to move $1 million in public infrastructure money from other Bull Street projects to the stadium. Hughes’ first construction project is to be immediately adjacent to the ballpark. Hughes also donated eight acres to the city on which the year-round stadium is to sit. Hughes released no new details about the building that will be adjacent to the first base line.

Asked Tuesday whether any more public money would be spent on the stadium, Benjamin had a one-word answer, “No.”

The stadium is being presented by city officials and developers as the catalyst to major private investment on the surrounding 157 acres that one day might revitalize the area near the city center.

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