City Council appears poised to pass Bull Street baseball park plan

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - After months of debate, discussion, and sometimes moments of deteriorating discourse, four members of Columbia City Council appear to be leaning in the direction of voting in favor of a plan that would build a minor league baseball park to the old Mental Health hospital on Bull Street.

The controversial project comes up for a final vote on Tuesday.

The stadium plan barely passed on first reading in a 4 to 3 vote. Since then, opponents have done what they could to warn the community of what they feel are the dangers of committing so much public money to the project.

For a while, it appeared stadium foes might be gaining ground, but stadium supporters, led by Mayor Steve Benjamin, continued to talk up the pluses at a series of public hearings and community meetings.

The original proposal has since been fine-tuned with some significant changes that obligate the prospective baseball team's ownership to greater contributions.

City leaders also wrote in new language making development around the ballpark taxable and creating a larger advisory board.

Councilman Cameron Runyan, who said up until a few days ago he was still pondering whether to vote a second time for the stadium, now says he's on board with the plan.

Runyan called the process of making his decision a "very long journey" and said he was initially opposed to the plan.

"So as I looked more and more under the hood of this project, I realized how catalytic it's going to be and people will see that very quickly. This is going to be very special. I think it's going to be very defining for the City of Columbia. It's going to be defining for a generation to come," said Runyan.

Runyan joins Benjamin, Councilmen Sam Davis and Brian DeQuincey Newman in the majority supporting the ballpark. That leaves council members Leona Plaugh, Moe Baddourah, and Tameika Isaac Devine as the no votes.

Those three council members still believe an upset is possible due to fears that the city may not be able to afford the ballpark in the long run.

"The city has $29 million-$30 million worth in it," said Baddourah. "The management company that's going to run and manage the stadium, he doesn't have a lot of skin in the game."

In the end, what's driving Benjamin, Davis, Newman, and Runyan is the hope businesses, which will generate tax revenue and offset the $29 million in taxpayer funds used in construction, will come with the stadium.

Phillip Waddell, owner of Chocolate Nirvana, which is just down the street from the decaying complex, says putting a baseball stadium on the old grounds could do wonders for business growth on Bull Street if it's done the right way.

"The biggest mistake the city could make is if they try to overregulate businesses and force things into the area," said Waddell.

Or in other words, Waddell says if the city builds it, he hopes businesses will come. Problem is, with or without that tax revenue, the city's still got to pay off the stadium.

"I don't think it's a good way to spend taxpayers' money," said Baddourah.

Opponents of the plan, meanwhile, will unveil a new cost analysis that shows it will take the city 30 years to break even on the project. The analysis also shows the city will still have $90 million in debt in that same span.

The council meets to vote on a second reading Tuesday at 6:00 p.m.

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