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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)

Columbia tentatively authorized a contract to build a publicly funded stadium Tuesday despite months of increasingly vocal disagreements from residents and reluctance among a council minority.

On a 4-3 vote, City Council gave the first of two required approvals to a deal with Atlanta- based Hardball Capital to bring a minor-league baseball team to the Capital City to play in a projected $35 million, year-round ballpark.

The contract calls for Hardball to put $6 million toward construction costs as well as to sweeten the deal for the city by pledging to assume greater financial risk should the stadium fail to attract the promised number of visitors or to become the catalyst for construction in the surrounding Bull Street neighborhood.

If a final vote occurs at council s next meeting on March 18, Hardball Capital owner Jason Freier would face a tough challenge to design and help build an 8,500 capacity stadium in time for the start of the minor-league season in April 2015, city staffers told council in another extended and sometimes testy discussion of the project.

The first pitch is more likely for the 2016 season.

Voting to delay a decision were council members Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah.

Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan beat back two attempts to postpone a vote that would have allowed city staffers to get a cost/benefit analysis of the project among other revisions.

According to the most recent assessment from staffers who negotiated the contract with Freier, the city would pay $29 million of the construction costs with a loan that would be repaid from taxes collected from restaurant and bar patrons. That loan, called a hospitality tax bond, would be repaid over 30 years.

Under the formula voted on Tuesday, the public would pay 76.3 percent of the construction cost. Hardball would pay 15.8 percent and Hughes Development Corp. of Greenville, the master developer of the Bull Street neighborhood, would kick in an estimated $3 million by donating 10 to 12 acres of the 165-acre site for the stadium.

Some of the newly disclosed provisions in the contract include that the city could delay the construction of a $12 million parking garage because Freier and Hughes have agreed to provide surface parking for the ballpark until the garage is constructed.

Freier also has agreed to contribute annually to a $250,000 ballpark maintenance fund if the city s income from the stadium does not generate the full $250,000. Further, he would pay up to $516,000 each year until the Bull Street project puts $60 million of property on the tax rolls, said Jeff Palen, the city s chief financial officer.

The city also would keep all the ticket sales and advertising dollars at events that don t involve baseball, half of the money from concessions at city-sponsored events as well as half the income from naming rights for the stadium.

The vote came shortly after Benjamin called on Rich Newmann, one of the consultants the city hired to conduct a feasibility study.

It s a very good deal from the perspective of the residents of Columbia, Neumann told a packed council chamber. This is also a good deal for Hardball Capital.

If these deals didn t make sense, why is everyone else doing it? the long time baseball consultant said, reminding council that the a stadium represents intangibles such as improving Columbia s quality of life and creating an entertainment option that will appeal to young professionals who find the city offers too few attractions for them to live here.

I ve never seen a cost/benefit analysis for a project like this, Newmann told Plaugh.

City manager Teresa Wilson told council that she has been unable to find an economist willing to do a cost/benefit analysis without knowing details of Hughes construction plans which he has yet to disclose.

We don t have that now, Wilson said. So, I couldn t get someone to commit to that type of study.

Devine said that a delay might help Hardball with a public relations problem. You have a team that comes to town with a lot of public animosity (toward the financing plan), she said.

Benjamin the most outspoken supporter of a city-owned ballpark countered that the stadium will trigger new businesses and homes that will generate more property taxes from land that is now tax exempt because it s owned by a state agency.

We re talking about growing Columbia the overall revenue, Benjamin said.

He pressed council saying that it s time to stop talking and decide.

Baddourah agreed with Plaugh and others in the audience that the city has many other pressing needs, which it is seeking to finance.

We waited long enough for our quality of life, he said. Now we re giving all this to a man from Atlanta and a man from Greenville. We re putting all our eggs in one basket.

A final vote would likely occur in about two weeks.


March 6, 2014




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