Baseball & Bull Street: Debate may be entering 7th inning stretch

Several young people supporting a ballpark took signs to the city council meeting
Several young people supporting a ballpark took signs to the city council meeting

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - You think Olympic competition is intense? Consider the ongoing debate centered on building a minor league baseball venue on the Bull Street Development property in downtown Columbia.

Would it be a "ball park" or a "multi-use venue?" It depends on who you ask.

Tuesday evening, those who love the idea and those who question why and how the city will pay for the project talked it out in council chambers.

It was yet another chance to speak directly to the ones who could decide soon if Columbia will, in fact, play ball.

In fact, for those who follow the process closely, many of the opinions were expressed by familiar voices to local Columbia politics. Especially those who have already weighed-in on the proposal to build a $30,000,000+ publicly-funded minor league ball park on the Bull Street property.

The same local player, DeAndre Asbury-Heath, who made it to the pros who spoke out weeks ago in council chambers stepped up to the microphone again Tuesday night. Donning his St. Louis Cardinals jacket, he spoke of the sport of baseball helping to make his dreams come true.

"Unlike my first appearance, I came prepared with a speech for you today," said Asbury-Heath.

The same can be said for vocal opponents. The people who say baseball's great but they question how much taxpayers could come out of pocket for a ball park venue.

One opponent asked why a certain funding mechanism used by municipalities wasn't being considered in funding formulas being presented by the city's finance office. A general obligation -- or GO -- bond the supporter says would save taxpayers $27,000,000 and would take the issue to voters with a public referendum. But, the mayor questioned if that approach would mean a tax increase. "potentially," said a city financial staff member.

But, new support and opposition showed up in chambers, too.

Benedict College, a "stone's throw" from the proposed site of the baseball venue dispatched the campus' athletics director and a small contingency of softball players.

"Benedict College totally and fully endorses that stadium," the A.D. said explaining a minor league park would be an avenue to part time jobs for Benedict students and others in the community.  "Without a doubt, other citizens in Columbia will get jobs there."

And, in the ninth inning of this public comment portion of the council meeting, South Carolina NAACP President Dr. Lonnie Randolph spoke out against the ballpark plan. Randolph finds the funding formulas rolled out by the City's money men to be tough to follow, a little too much inside baseball for the majority of attendees in the crowd. He believes the effort to build is being controlled by lobbyists.

His comments sparked one supporter of the plan to confront him in council chambers. Randolph's opinions and questions are new to the public debate and points he thinks need to be considered by both sides.

The latest funding formula displayed for all to see on the screen above council members' table relies more heavily on hospitality revenue bonds than previous budget ideas.

Councilwoman Leona Plaugh made it a point to publicly commend Mayor Steve Benjamin for meeting with members of Columbia's Arts community Tuesday morning. A meeting she says brought a promise from Benjamin that a baseball stadium would not take away any future budget dollars from arts-related groups, programs, and initiatives.

It's not set in stone but staffers for the Mayor say a first vote on the proposal is anticipated on March 4th. We'll be sure to keep  you posted once a firm date for a vote is known.

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