With 29 home games remaining on the schedule, the Columbia Fireflies have shattered the season record for attendance for professional baseball in the Capital City.
Through 41 games after last week’s home stand, the South Atlantic League team has welcomed 159,986 fans through the turnstiles. That eclipsed the 156,921 posted by the former Capital City Bombers all season in 1996.
But the record was set in an untested stadium in the midst of a huge construction site that once was a mental hospital while fans had to be shuttled from parking lots off-site – challenges that have kept some fans away.
Columbia is fifth in the 14-team South Atlantic League in attendance, trailing the Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws, the Greensboro (N.C.) Grasshoppers, and in-state rivals Greenville Drive and Charleston RiverDogs.
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“We knew that this year would be good, but challenging,” said Fireflies owner Jason Freier of Atlanta-based Hardball Capital, which also owns the Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps and the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Lookouts.
“Our attendance numbers are good and proof of concept,” he said. “We also believe in the next couple of years it will be higher than it is now as we grow our fan base.
“Right now it’s not an attractive site,” he said of the Bull Street location. “It’s a work in progress. By design, we’re in the middle of what will be a great development, but right now its a huge construction zone.”
The Bull Street location is the former home of the S.C. State Hospital, which is being redeveloped by Upstate businessman Bob Hughes. The 181-acre campus, located in downtown Columbia, is in a state of flux, with most buildings empty, including the landmark Babcock Building with its familiar red cupola.
Hughes has built an office building along the first base line of the stadium, called the First Base Building, but it has only one tenant, a law firm that occupies one of the four floors. Three other small historic buildings are being renovated on the sprawling campus.
Eventually, the site is expected to be a “city within a city” – full of stores, apartments, condos, offices and parks. The developers have said about 60 retailers have signed letters of intent to locate in the retail area adjacent to the ballpark, but so far no formal announcements have been made.
Mayor Steve Benjamin, who backed the $37-million, mostly taxpayer funded stadium, acknowledged that Bull Street may take awhile to build out.
“We have always said this is a 20-year build out,” he said. “I think it will be a lot shorter than that. We going to have some growing pains together. But in the end it’s going to be something we all are going to be really happy to have.”
‘It’s going to be a great asset’
The majority of the campus remains in various states of demolition or renovation, with no paved parking for stadium patrons. Firefly fans have to be shuttled by trolley from nearby state office building parking lots.
Team president John Katz said parking will become available as the Bull Street campus is developed. But so far there are no “definitive” plans for paved, on-site parking next season, he said.
“We expect the parking to be fluid as different parts of the site are developed,” he said.
But for Trey Gordner, who lives in nearby Cottontown with his wife, Andrea, the complex parking situation has led to opportunities for fun outings.
Friends attending the game like to park at their house and walk to the stadium. The Gordners often join them.
“My wife and I have 10 games between us and we’ve never been by ourselves,” Gordner said. “We’re surprised by how many games we’ve seen. I really didn’t see myself going very often.
“As it turns out it seems to be on the top of everyone’s mind on a Tuesday or Thursday evening, and we get invited,” he added. “Where else can you get in for $5 and not be obligated to spend anything else and just enjoy a ballgame?”
Gordner said he was “pretty skeptical” of the Bull Street project and “nervous” about the amount of public money that was going into the stadium.
“But if things continue this way, it’s going to be a great asset for Columbia,”
‘Everything will have growing pains’
Freier said the team will also continue to make improvements inside the park.
Early in the season, concession stands were often marked by long lines as inexperienced employees and other glitches slowed the process down.
“There were long lines,” he said. “It took too long to get food, and it took too long to get catering to our suites. We did training, but there’s a difference between training and doing. So it’s been a combination of winnowing (inefficient employees) and helping make employees better.
“There is no substitute for experience,” he said. “Everything will have growing pains in the beginning. But we got the big piece right – the ball park.”
Freier said that the team expects to continue to invest in the ball park, noting that they have pumped $4 million in improvements to the Fort Wayne stadium since it opened in April 2009.
“The ball park will be better next year than it is this year,” he said, without offering details. “We would rather go through things over time and surprise people. We want to do something every single off season.”
In the meantime, the record-setting season, even among all the challenges, has been converting doubters, Benjamin said.
“It’s a great feeling when I see a neighbor on the concourse at the park, someone who says ‘I was very much against this and now I love it,’” Benjamin said. “If I had a nickle for everyone who said that I’d be rich now.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” he added. “The team is well run. But I think the most important thing is people really enjoy the fellowship. And in the future it’s just going to be that much more exciting.”
South Atlantic League Attendance
Minor league teams play 70 home dates a year. Here are the attendance figures for “Sally” League teams so far this season.
Lakewood BlueClaws, 209,068 total, 41 dates, 5,099 average
Greensboro Grasshoppers, 205,042 total, 40 dates, 5,126 average
Greenville Drive, 204,096 total, 42 dates, 4,859 average
Charleston RiverDogs, 180,595 total, 41 dates, 4,405 average
Columbia Fireflies, 159,986 total, 41 dates, 3,902 average
Lexington Legends, 151,367 total, 38 dates, 3,983 average
Delmarva Shorebirds, 116,378 total, 37 dates, 3,145 average
Rome Braves, 107,669 total, 42 dates, 2,564 average
Augusta GreenJackets, 104,845 total, 40 dates, 2,621 average
Asheville Tourists, 102,688 total, 40 dates, 2,567 average
West Virginia Power, 90,799 total, 40 dates, 2,270 average
Hickory Crawdads, 87,341 total, 39 dates, 2,240 average
Kannapolis Intimidators, 69,230 total, 43 dates, 1,610 average
Hagerstown Suns, 48,710 total, 41 dates 1,188 average
SOURCE: Minor Leaeue Baseball