CONSTRUCTION hasn’t even begun on Columbia’s city-owned baseball stadium planned for the proposed Bull Street development, and the price tag already has risen.
In announcing that the stadium’s cost had increased by $2 million — from $35 million to $37 million — Mayor Steve Benjamin said taxpayers wouldn’t be asked to dole out any more cash to meet the need. Instead, the city will shift $1 million it already had pledged to provide infrastructure to the larger Bull Street development, and the owner of the baseball team will increase his commitment by $1 million.
That would raise the city’s commitment to the baseball stadium to $30 million from $29 million, while Hardball Capital, which will run the year-round ballpark, will see its contribution go from $6 million to $7 million.
Mayor Benjamin said that council members have made it clear they don’t want any more public money to be spent toward the baseball stadium. While we certainly hope that will hold true, this latest development isn’t reassuring. How can it be, when the ballpark’s cost has increased $2 million even before the start of construction, which could bring unanticipated change orders and cost overruns that must be paid by someone?
City officials hope to break ground on the stadium before year’s end. The ballpark is projected to be complete in time for the start of the 2016 minor league season in April of that year.
Beyond that, the fact that the city is able to transfer $1 million from the $31.25 million it has agreed to spend providing water, sewer and other utilities for the Bull Street project also raises a few questions: Does that mean that the $1 million was never needed? If it wasn’t, why did the city pledge as much as it did for infrastructure? If it is needed, will Hughes Development Corp., Bull Street’s developer, replace that money itself? Or will the developer come back later and request that the city replace it, which would mean that this was all a shell game that allowed more money to be steered toward baseball?
It’s no secret that we’ve questioned the wisdom of the city building a publicly financed and owned baseball park for a private, for-profit minor league team. We simply don’t think that governments should be primary backers of such ventures, which demand high public investment with often modest return. Nor is it any secret that we believe that the city went too far in promising to provide all the infrastructure for the larger Bull Street project.
But we believe it’s appropriate for Columbia to help pay for infrastructure — at a reasonable level — in an effort to ensure the development’s success, which would put precious property on the tax rolls and help boost the local economy.
Ultimately, it’s not city officials’ job to make sure that baseball succeeds or Bull Street flourishes. That’s the job of the baseball team owner and the Bull Street developer. Columbia officials’ job is to wisely manage taxpayer dollars, even in instances where they determine that it makes sense to help jump-start a development such as Columbia Common, the name of the greater Bull Street project.
To that end, Columbia must closely monitor costs for construction of this taxpayer-funded stadium as well as infrastructure costs for Columbia Common. These are the types of projects that can spin out of control and soak up public money if officials aren’t careful about protecting taxpayers’ money.