City shouldn’t shoulder the burden for Bull Street ballpark

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As The State said, ‘The Columbia City Council seems to have been seduced by a voice very similar to the one that enticed Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, with its promise that “If you build it, he will come…”‘

Mark Stewart suggests this topic:

How about discussing how and why the City of Columbia is staking its future viability on the development of publicly fianced minor league baseball (and, frankly, private retail, commercial and residential development) at the Bull Street boondoggle?

I find this situation to be absolutely stunning myself.

And since he’s a good friend to the blog, and adds much to the quality of civil discourse here, I decided to start a separate post on the topic.

Also, it’s a big local issue that I’ve been remiss in not blogging about.

The thing is, I haven’t really been passionate on the subject. See, on the one hand, I really, really want to see professional baseball come back to the city. Not because I’ll personally go to the games, but then, I’m not someone who goes out and spends money to be entertained. No, my motivation is vaguer and more abstract than that. You know how the Godfather said, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man?” Well, I have this idea that a city that doesn’t have a pro ball club can never be a real city. There it is. Not really an argument worth blogging about, is it?

And in the end, I probably reluctantly end up taking the position Warren and Cindi have taken, which is consistent with the positions we took on such things in the past:

A MINOR league ballpark would be a nice complement to the mega-development planned at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street. As a matter of fact, it would be nice to have a minor league team move back to Columbia as well.

But, as we have said in the past, any baseball park that can’t be built without Columbia taxpayers shouldering the load should not be built. If Greenville developer Bob Hughes wants a ballpark, he should lure private investors — including the team — to the table to finance it.

That’s not to say Columbia can’t participate in some limited way. The city already is on the hook to provide the development with infrastructure such as water, sewer and roads, which would include that needed to support a minor league ballpark. And we can see the city providing limited incentives beyond that to help lure a team to town, but only after the club puts its own skin in the game by making financial commitments toward building a stadium, which would reduce the chance that it would up and leave as soon as it gets a more lucrative offer from another city….

Already, the Bull Street redevelopment is costing the city more than anticipated (a bunch more — I don’t know about you, but $23 million is more than I make in a year). So the city shouldn’t be a spendthrift when it comes to something as nonessential as a sporting venue.

Basically, footing the lion’s share of the cost with public money violates the “Publix Rule” we set on the editorial board a number of years ago. The city put up about $300,000 to help a Publix come into the old Confederate printing press building. The store was a success, and has had a salutary effect on fostering the whole live-work-play dynamic in the city center, and been a plus to the local economy. We regarded that 300k as a good investment.

With baseball as with other things, the city should generally confine itself to Publix-sized incentives.

51 thoughts on “City shouldn’t shoulder the burden for Bull Street ballpark

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    I am happy with not being a real city. I lived in a real city or two, and the hassles outweigh the benefits. Nice places to visit, but a PITA to live in.

    Of course, this makes me a critic who espouses mediocrity, in the mayor’s eyes. Bear in mind that he only technically lives in the city, within the limits but ensconced in a cushy enclave. The State’s editorial nails it today, with its excoriation of the rush to approval tactics and my way or the highway rhetoric employed by the Benjamin cabal.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    You can’t be a “real city” without a minor league baseball team? Hmmmm. Let’s do some research.

    I’ve looked at MLB down to High A (I didn’t do Low A or rookie ball because those are a little different) and the following cities don’t have major or minor league teams:

    1. San Juan PR* (population 395k)
    2. Portland OR (population 603k)
    3. Orlando FL (population 249k)
    4. Honolulu HI (population 374k) Used to have a team, it failed/moved twice.
    5. Baton Rouge LA (230k)

    The big outlier there is Portland. It has an NBA team and and MLS team. I’m surprised that they can’t make MiLB viable there.

    *(With the caveat that they have their own Puerto Rican teams) These teams just aren’t affiliated with MLB or MiLB in any way. So, there’s baseball in PR, but it’s a different league.

          1. Doug Ross

            My fantasy outcome would be to see the Tampa Rays (worst attendance in MLB) move to Charlotte’s new downtown stadium (adding 20K seats) and then have the AAA minor league Charlotte Knights move to Columbia.

          2. Mark Stewart

            BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte cost $54 million. The municipal contribution was $8 million. And the site is adjacent to Uptown, not centered within one private development as with Bull Street.

    1. Mark Stewart

      As a native of Portland, OR I would offer the insight that the city repeatedly rejected the “demands” of team owners to municipally fund a minor league baseball park. The historic in-town ballpark was rebuilt for the MLS when the baseball league and team owners demanded what is being asked of the City of Columbia.

      Baton Rouge is the real comparable to Columbia though…

      However, I don’t think the question is whether Columbia would be a good minor league baseball market, the real question remains why on earth should the city shoulder the entire cost of a premium park? Especially when it is using water & sewer funds together with other financing “sources” that it does not have the capacity to currently fund?

    2. Doug Ross

      Kissimmee, FL is close enough to Orlando — and they were looking to invest $98 million to build a stadium for MLB spring training.

      “Officials said the facility would cost the city $98 million, with the Nationals picking up the rest of the cost. They also said the stadium could generate $173 million a year for the county and attract 200,000 fans each spring if two teams made the stadium their home.”

      And this from yesterday says they are ready to build a stadium in Portland if they can attract an MLB franchise through expansion or relocation (Tampa Rays would be an ideal candidate).

      1. Doug Ross

        And rather than talking about cities that don’t have baseball (primarily due to travel, weather, etc,) why not discuss what makes Columbia different from Charleston, Charlotte, Greenville, and Myrtle Beach in supporting a team. The model appears to have been successful everywhere surrounding Columbia within a two hour drive.

      2. Doug Ross

        It’s not just baseball, either. As the baseball guy leading the effort has mentioned, he’s talking about potentially 300 events a year at the stadium.

        Sadly, Columbia appears to be more interested in building thousands of student apartments in Dormo-vista. USC runs this town.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Given the mayor’s push to close Five Points to vehicles on weekend, which only USC seems to want, you have a point!

  3. Doug Ross

    I think the city should consider providing funding that is based on revenues that would either come directly from the ballpark itself (fees on tickets, parking, hospitality taxes) plus some additional funding from hospitality taxes in general. Above that, it would depend on how much more the developers are asking for.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      He does ad-lib. When Mike Wukela has given me one of the mayor’s speeches in the past, it’s been with the caveat that it won’t contain the ad-libs.

      In cases such as that, of course, it’s a “speech as prepared,” not a transcript….

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Clif reported that Benjamin went off script to share the story about kids at the Beltline McD’s…the same one he told our neighborhood meeting in October, and reportedly elsewhere before that. Not very off the cuff, unless we are talking Sarah Palin cheat sheet style!

  4. Mark Stewart

    I am amazed that the City of Columbia is looking to commit itself to over $100 million in funds for the Bull Street site – when the developer himself has said that he doesn’t have $3 million total in the site so far (almost all of which is surely legal and lobbying expenses). That’s really staggering.

    It’s sort of like Coble and Benjamin are in a race to bleed the city dry. Pretty ironic for the past and present Mayors of the city.

    All I see here is a giant, slowly unfolding disaster. If neither the developer nor the team owner have any real skin in the game, how can anyone project a different future outcome? I don’t think I have ever heard of anything quite like this situation.

  5. Phillip

    Oops, I take it back, it is there, just in a different paragraph than where I was looking. Actually, reading the surrounding context, it’s even worse than I thought. Benjamin seems to think the only reasons people oppose his ideas are because “it’s not what [they’re] used to, because it’s not [their] idea, or just because it’s new.”

    Few in this area’s culture will dare to say this, but I will: Benjamin’s heart-on-sleeve public religiosity is, I fear, a little bit tied up with the messianic language he uses in describing his vision for the city and his crusader-like me-against-the-infidels tone. He should recall that doubt, uncertainty, hesitancy, skepticism, are all gifts from God, too, as is the ability of humans (and the challenge given them) to continually weigh the drive to action against the consequences.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Warren Bolton, whom you might also challenge for public religiosity (with more cause, as Warren is an ordained minister), took the mayor to task for some of that rhetoric today:

      But in the process of painting a compelling picture of what Columbia can be, Mr. Benjamin once again pulled out his broad brush and painted a significant number of Columbians as “doubters” and “naysayers.”

      Is this simply rhetoric to fuel his most ardent supporters or an attempt to shame some who raise objections to the mayor’s pet proposals to at least be quiet, if not join him? Whatever the intent, such tactics can be off-putting and counterproductive.

      It simply is not true that everyone who disagrees with Mr. Benjamin — or with City Council — is out to sabotage a particular project or effort. Without a doubt, there are some on City Council — take Councilman Moe Baddourah, for example — and in this community who seem to oppose practically anything the mayor supports. And, yes, there are those who, believe it or not, don’t want to see this city grow and don’t want to see more diverse groups of people enjoying the fruits that come with that.

      But there are also reasonable, well-meaning people who simply need their elected leaders to be more open in providing time and information to help them understand the issues. While some of those people still will disagree with the direction proposed, many are open to progress but need and deserve ample opportunity to study — not delay or obstruct — issues. They would like to hear open and public council debate. They would like the council to exercise due care. (News flash: It’s possible to exercise due care even when time is of the essence.)…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        In a very weird coincidence, today I heard the term “concern troll” for the first time. It was the subject of an article brought to my attention by Stan Dubinsky.

        Wikipedia defines the term this way:

        A concern troll is a false flag pseudonym created by a user whose actual point of view is opposed to the one that the user claims to hold. The concern troll posts in Web forums devoted to its declared point of view and attempts to sway the group’s actions or opinions while claiming to share their goals, but with professed “concerns”. The goal is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt within the group.[36]

        An example of this occurred in 2006 when Tad Furtado, a staffer for then-Congressman Charles Bass (R-NH), was caught posing as a “concerned” supporter of Bass’ opponent, Democrat Paul Hodes, on several liberal New Hampshire blogs, using the pseudonyms “IndieNH” or “IndyNH”. “IndyNH” expressed concern that Democrats might just be wasting their time or money on Hodes, because Bass was unbeatable.[37][38] Hodes eventually won the election.

        Although the term “concern troll” originated in discussions of online behavior, it now sees increasing use to describe similar behaviors that take place offline. For example, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair accused a conservative New York Daily News columnist of “concern troll” behavior in his efforts to downplay the Mark Foley scandal. Wolcott links what he calls concern trolls to what Saul Alinsky calls “Do-Nothings”, giving a long quote from Alinsky on the Do-Nothings’ method and effects:

        “ These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, ‘I agree with your ends but not your means’.[39] ”
        The Hill published an op-ed piece by Markos Moulitsas of the liberal blog Daily Kos titled “Dems: Ignore ‘Concern Trolls'”. The concern trolls in question were not Internet participants; they were Republicans offering public advice and warnings to the Democrats. The author defines “concern trolling” as “offering a poisoned apple in the form of advice to political opponents that, if taken, would harm the recipient”.[40]

        Now, I’m not saying these concerned citizens Warren defends are “concern trolls.” I’m just saying it’s weird that I learned that term on the same day I read Warren’s column…

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Concern trolls are common in the case of, say, “concern” about a celebrity’s weight: it’s a passive aggressive way to criticize.

        2. Doug Ross


          I am concerned that you will never get to see your vision of a country dominated by government involvement in every aspect of our lives won’t be realized. What can I do to “help”?

  6. Phillip

    Warren’s column was right on point, I thought. I’m one of those people he describes for whom the Mayor’s rhetoric has been “counterproductive,” as I’m the kind of person who’s naturally inclined to support a lot of these ideas of which the Mayor speaks. But frankly, a lot of his rhetoric has really A) creeped me out, and B) because of “A,” therefore made me suspicious and dubious where I might have been less so otherwise.

    Having a vision for the city (even one that he so vaguely describes as “greatness”—what does that mean, really?) is great, but the Mayor gives me the feeling that he wishes he were in a bigger job than the one in which he finds himself. This is where the dangerous leap in logic can occur, for example, in wanting the baseball team so badly (because it fits the “vision”) that the city may overcommit financially.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      It has been reported that Jim Clyburn told those gathered at the would be strong mayor victory bash that Benjamin would be in higher office before his mayoral term ends.

      1. Silence

        Well, There have been persistent rumors about Benjamin’s political future since before he had ever even won a single election. It’s as if it was ordained from on high.

  7. Juan Caruso

    Mark’s concern over a “publicly fianced minor league baseball (and, frankly, private retail, commercial and residential development) at the Bull Street boondoggle” is probably not guided by . Always follow the money. Ask the city how long it will take residential taxpayers to recoup their investment after deducting tax increments anticipated from private retail, commercial and residential developers, and any additional parking fees.

    The payback period (if reviewed by independent accountants) would undoubtedbly be over 25 – 30 years, some 10 -15 years after such a league relocated due to loss of public patronage, delapidated faccilities and better sites offered elsewhere. “Boondoggle” probably understates the con being proposed.

    1. Mab

      re: ““Boondoggle” probably understates the con being proposed.”



      “In Siam elephants were working animals. However, white (albino) elephants were considered sacred and therefore were not to be put to work. The owner was then left to feed the elephant but could get no work from it. It is said that the King of Siam used to make a present of a white elephant to courtiers he wanted to ruin.”

      ^^^ [yes, I think you’re right]

  8. bud

    This is perhaps the smartest group of people in Columbia, the Brad posters, yet no mention of the obvious: We already have a first class baseball facility. Since the minor league baseball season and the College season only overlap a couple of weeks why in heavens name can’t the city and USC get together to share Carolina Stadium? I’m no genius but wouldn’t that be a win-win for everyone? The taxpayers wouldn’t have to anti up. USC could rent the facility out during the off season when it’s vacant and apply the receipt toward reducing tuition costs. (Just a thought) The city could boast a minor league team near the Vista. And Brad could claim Columbia as a “real” city. Who could possibly reject such a sensible proposal? Then again this is Columbia with RR tracks that run during rush hour and during USC football games. Just sayin.

      1. Mark Stewart

        That can’t be true, Kathryn; look at the Colonial Center. Or Williams Brice for that matter. I think it’s all a smokescreen thrown up by USC supporters even more than the institution itself. Probably the biggest real issue would be the “corrosive” effect of beer sales at minor league ball games on the Gamecock season over time.

        Bud’s right, the minor league schedule could easily be slotted around the Gamecock’s needs for the SEC schedule.

      2. bud

        There’s probably a good bit of red tape to clear but couldn’t the financing be restructured to pay off the tax-exempt bonds with a revenue stream from the minor league team? There has to be a way to utilize this fine facility year-round to the benefit of the taxpayers rather than let it sit idle while a few miles away the city sinks 10s of $millions into a redundant ball park in a rather poor location that could be utilized for a better purpose, perhaps a water park.

        1. Doug Ross

          It ain’t happening, bud. USC will not allow it. There would be too much overlap in the months of March, April, and May for the teams to practice and play their games.

          But there’s no reason why the Columbia Blowfish team (comprised of college players) couldn’t use the stadium between June and August instead of being relegated to the dilapidated, unsafe Capital City Stadium.

  9. Bryan Caskey

    I highly doubt that USC will allow another team to play at Carolina Stadium. Even when the team isn’t playing games, they still use the place all the time. It has offices for the coaching staff, a weight room for the baseball team, indoor batting cages, etc.

    Carolina Stadium is a non-starter.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      The more I think about a minor league team sharing Carolina Stadium with the USC baseball team, the more I think it’s never gonna happen for about a billion reasons. I’ll give you a few.

      FIrst, who’s to say that a minor league team even *wants* to share a ballpark with another baseball team? The minor league coaches and owners might look down on having to “share” facilities with what in their eyes is a lowly college team. I’m not saying that would be logical, but they might not really love the idea of having to share with “amateur” players. So there’s that.

      Second, the minor league team is going to need offices for coaches, scouts, staff, their own trainers, all their own equipment (different balls, bats, uniforms, etc.) and all sorts of other things that they can’t “share” with USC Baseball. There’s not much room for additional space for all of this stuff, so we’ve got a massive problem there. Remember, that USC baseball uses these offices year-round themselves.

      Also, I’m not sure how the NCAA would view this. The NCAA has a labyrinth of arcane rules about what can and cannot go on with member institutions athletics. Having a professional team in such close proximity might present an objection from the NCAA. (Not that such an objection would be logical, but not much about the NCAA is.)

      Also, a minor league team might not like the color scheme of garnet and black everywhere. It’s on the railings, the seats, the trim, the scoreboard, everything. If the minor league’s team colors are blue and white, it’s going to look a little weird. I know some of you might scoff at the color stuff, but team ownership is going to think about things like that.

      I just don’t see it happening. Not being negative, just realistic.

      As our President says, let me be clear: I’m not against a minor league team coming to Columbia. I’m against the city being a de facto investor in the team. If enough private interests want to get together an do the minor league team here in Columbia, I’m all for it. Live and let live. Heck, I’ll probably go to a few games and enjoy a cold beer on a hot day and enjoy a game.

      I wouldn’t be against giving a minor league team some small, short-term tax breaks that are usually given to businesses when a city or state is trying to lure a big company, but that’s probably the extent of what we should do.

      1. Brad Warthen

        It won’t happen for two reasons:

        1. USC said “no” when they were building it, and the “no” held.

        2. USC has won two national championships since moving into its single-team-occupancy home, and now has a thousand times as much juice. The “no” was already final. Now, it’s long buried…

        The only way it would happen would be if USC suddenly wanted it to happen. Hard to imagine.

  10. bud

    It’s interesting how times have changed on this “sharing a stadium” issue. In the mid-60 many major cities built a single stadium that was shared by its NFL and MLB franchises with a good bit of seasonal overlap. With the demise of Candlestick Park in San Francisco practically every city now has separate facilities. (Oakland may be the last exception?) Football and baseball are distinctly different whereas college and minor league baseball are pretty much the same game. Is there really that much money in sports to continue building newer and elaborately expensive stadiums that are used less than half the year?

    As for the issue at hand, I surrender. As long as there’s not the will to make something happen it never will.

  11. Mark Stewart

    I am still trying to wrap my head around this boondoggle: The city agrees to fund infrastructure for a private redevelopment of the Bull Street site. Then the city agrees to fund parking garages to support said private development (to boost the potential development densities achievable). Then, after the developer closes on the property, a minor league baseball park enters the discussion – and the city falls all over itself seamingly agreeing to fund the entire cost of a premiere ballpark. And then, after announcing that he’s really got very little skin in the game, the developer states that the ballpark was really the plan all along – and, oh by the way, no other development opportunity has panned out for the site.

    So now the city is thinking it will fund the infrastructure, build the parking garages, construct the ballpark – and then let the team owner and the developer profit from the for-profit enterprises that will be occupy the site.

    The part that really gets me though is that this site isn’t adjacent to the city’s commercial areas, like downtown or the vista. No, the development would take place in a walled garden removed from other business and entertainment establishments; so every dollar will flow back to this one developer. That is some stunning approach to municipal economic development.

    I think it is appropriate at this point for the Mayor to justify why this is beneficial to the city of Columbia and it’s citizens – who will be on the hook for delivering this private-profit generating aggregation. If I were any resident or area business owner I would be beyond irked that something so ham-handed as this was even under discussion.

    Sometimes the best thing to do is to confirm that one will adhere to previous agreements, but do no more. Right now, the city only has to pay for the infrastructure as the developer actually lands commitments for the site. Let’s not have this converted to the city leading the development by funding the ballpark – thereby insuring that the city will also have to fund the infrastructure and the parking garages regardless of the economic return that the city will see from these.

    As it appears to be, this is shaping up to be the worst sort of publicly funded private development imaginable.

    1. Doug Ross

      “As it appears to be, this is shaping up to be the worst sort of publicly funded private development imaginable.”

      Follow the money, Mark. All sorts of well connected people will get rich off local tax dollars. It goes on every single day of the week.

      1. Mark Stewart

        I don’t object to that, Doug, that’s what economic development is. What I object to is the pinpoint delivery of benefits to one developer and one team owner.

        It might be one thing if the projected tax revenues from the Bull Street site far exceeded the annualized public investment cost. That at least would represent a return of the taxpayers’ money. But here we have no possibility of a net return on investment to the city.

        City Council is chasing fool’s gold – and offering to expend money the city does not have. Neither the optics nor the risk profile of this “deal” look good for the city’s residents and taxpayers.


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