City council votes to begin contract talks with baseball team owners

Published: Jan. 22, 2014 at 12:33 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2014 at 12:46 AM EST
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Bull Street developer Bob Hughes addresses Columbia City Council
Bull Street developer Bob Hughes addresses Columbia City Council

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Columbia City Council put off a decision on funding a baseball stadium until it meets again as a whole in February, but is moving forward with a contract with the owner of a minor-league team.

After a marathon council meeting Tuesday that included a public hearing on the issue, council voted to order City Manager Teresa Wilson and her staff to complete due diligence and explore more ways to finance the minimum of $35 million necessary to build a ballpark in the Bull Street Development.

City Council voted 5-2 to approve a resolution that directs the City Manager and her staff to start working on a draft lease agreement with Hardball Capital, the ownership group interested in bringing a minor-league team to Columbia.  Council members Plaugh and Baddourah cast the "no" votes.

Wilson is expected to present a draft of the agreement, which includes proposed financing and any commitments by the developer and a work plan for implementation at the February 4th council meeting.

After Jason Freier with Hardball Capital gave his presentation to council, he fielded questions for another hour. It was Freier's first presentation to the whole council, despite giving several presentations at community meetings scheduled in the last two weeks by Mayor Steve Benjamin.

Freier denied reports that the Savannah Sand Gnats, a team owned by Hardball Capital, were interested in relocating to Columbia. He said Major League Baseball prevents teams from publicly announcing their interest in other markets.

"We're the only ones that would know and we're not talking about it," he said.  "We're just following the rules. Those reports, quite frankly, are made up."

Freier said the Sand Gnats are in the last year of a three-year lease extension in Savannah. He told council the city of Savannah is in the process of conducting its own feasibility study to determine if the circa-1926 stadium there should be refurbished or if a new one should be built.

Two hours into the meeting, the members of the public were asked to give their opinions on the issue. Their responses were mixed.

"I think we have much more pressing issues," said Patricia Durkin. "We need to fix what's most important.  Improve our sewer, water and bus systems."

"I don't think our community should be risking the amount of money to build a new baseball stadium," said Fritz Hamer, who suggested refurbishing Capital City Stadium or work out an agreement with the University of South Carolina to play at Carolina Stadium.

Donald Francis said there's a price for progress.

"Stop being afraid to take risks," he said. "Just because the last situation didn't work doesn't mean this one won't."

"There's a whole generations of young professionals in this city who are watching you," said one man.  "We don't have an option to say no."

Some questioned the rate at which the process is progressing.

"You're telling us the absolute priority is shovels in the ground, build us a baseball stadium?" asked Bob Liming. "You know what? A-Rod would be embarrassed to rush that fast."

Others thought the city should look into private financing.

"Let the private sector handle it," said Sam Chestnut. "There are other opportunities in place."

But according to developers, the baseball stadium is contingent for retail development.

"We've met with more than 100 national and regional retailers, all well-known.  All want baseball," said Price Cameron, who represents a retail developer he was not allowed to name. "They want people from far away.  Baseball does this. "

"This is about the younger generation," said Bob Hughes, who has the city contract to develop the Bull Street property. "Having a place young families and people want to gather. If you noticed, not one young person here today spoke out against this."

"I have spent four years and $2 million on this," he said. "I am in this to make it work. I don't do that for no return.  The land around the ballpark will have more value because of the ballpark. It will create a hotspot that will ripple beyond Bull Street."

Hughes said if the ballpark is approved, retailers could start construction this year.  A contract with someone interested in developing the historic Babcock building is contingent on a baseball stadium in the development.

After the public hearing, the city finance officers presented several possible plans to raise the money to pay for a ballpark.  The city has three funding options: cash, hospitality bonds or installment revenue purchase bonds.

Council members said they needed more time to investigate all the financing options. 

"Baseball means a lot to me in this project," said Hughes.  "Baseball is worth me trying to figure out a way to work it out."

"The faster you do this, the faster you get there," he said.  "The opportunity is now and we should seize it."

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