As new stadium being built, team still not finalized

A rendering of the infield at the under-construction baseball stadium on the site of the former State Hospital campus on Bull Street.
A rendering of the infield at the under-construction baseball stadium on the site of the former State Hospital campus on Bull Street. Hughes Development Corp.

The start of the 2016 minor league baseball season is less than a year away, but which team will be playing in Columbia has not been decided.

Columbia team owner Jason Freier can see the large hole at the site of the Spirit Communications Park in the Bull Street development, where water-pipe work is being done and a foundation is being laid for the $37-million ballpark. He anticipates it will be another two to three weeks before the stadium, which he hopes to keep on budget and on time, will start to vertically rise from the ground.

Which team is being brought to Columbia by the Atlanta-based ownership group, Hardball Capital, will be announced later this spring, Freier said. He said his recent focus has included the start-up construction of the stadium as well as getting the seasons open of Hardball Capital’s teams in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; and Savannah.

“We still have a little bit of work to do to finalize some things, but once we are positive of what will happen, that’s when we will make the announcement,” Freier said. “There are still some things that are not 100 percent final.”

All signs continue to point to the Savannah Sand Gnats, a Single-A affilate of the New York Mets in the South Atlantic League, as the team that will be moved here. The team’s contract to stay in aging Grayson Stadium expires Sept. 30, and Savannah city officials have rejected Freier’s request to build a new ballpark there. Columbia has committed $30 million toward building the ballpark here, with Hardball Capital kicking in the other $7 million.

Savannah officials seem resigned to losing the team with Columbia’s ballpark going up.

“It’s akin to a woman that I’m in love with but wants a $30 million ring,” Savannah Mayor Pro Tem Van Johnson told WSAV-TV after throwing out the first pitch at the Sand Gnats’ home opener last week. “I love her, but I just can’t afford her. I mean, we love the Sand Gnats, but in terms of things that they want, we just can’t afford it at this time.”

Columbia is a perfect fit for the 14-team South Atlantic League, which is the home to two other clubs located in South Carolina, the Greenville Drive, a Boston Red Sox affiliate, and the Charleston RiverDogs, a New York Yankees affiliate.

Freier said the team’s name and colors also will be unveiled this spring. A name-the-team contest produced more than 2,000 submissions, and Freier said he believes the final choice will reflect Columbia’s uniqueness.

Freier said he feels comfortable that some of the surrounding development on the 165-acre site will be ready for next season’s opening day as well. Bull Street master developer Bob Hughes’ group is building a 120,000-square-foot retail and office building on the first base side of the stadium, with restaurants or sports bars that would overlook the park.

Freier said he also expects the nearby Ensor Building will find a new life in some form to start the season.