Columbia City Council to hold first public hearing on baseball stadium Tuesday

Minor league baseball in Columbia hinges on one thing: time. City Council has scheduled its first public hearing on the matter for noon Tuesday at City Hall as pressure mounts to  hold a vote on a contract agreement for a baseball stadium.

Council will vote on the following resolution:

“Authorizing the City Manager to commence negotiations to include financing strategies of a Venue License Agreement between Hardball Capital LLC and the City of Columbia and a Venue Management Agreement between Hardball Capital LLC and the City of Columbia for placement and consideration on the February 4, 2014 City Council Agenda.”

Minor league team owner Jason Freier, developer Bob Hughes and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin have worked vigorously over the past year to build interest in the multimillion dollar ballpark.

Neither Freier nor Benjamin have said whether contract negotiations have been held — with the mayor saying a lease has yet to be drafted, though legal council has developed a framework — but Tuesday’s resolution indicates an agreement is likely in the works.

If council does move forward, the stadium contract between the city and Freier’s management company Hardball Capital would need to be completed by March, which Freier says is the deadline to break ground in the Bull Street Development to have the stadium built by the 2015 minor league baseball season.

“We think if we started very soon, we would have an excellent chance to be ready for the 2015 season,” Freier said.

When asked whether stadium construction could be put on hold for a length of time, Freier said developer Bob Hughes wants retailers to be in place by 2016. The catalyst for that commercial development would be the ballpark.

“If we’re supposed to be the thing that gets Bull Street started, well do you want things to start getting developed more in ’15 or do you want to wait a whole other year for that?” Freier said. “And that’s also why 2015 is important to the city in our discussion … because if you have a city, do you want Bull Street to start getting significant activity in 2015 or do you want to wait until 2016?”

The rush to have the city invest in another part of the Bull Street Development and finance a permanent structure has some residents and council members concerned about the direction of the project.

Huge costs and uncertainty about what revenues would be generated for the city provoked the ire of concerned residents during a Jan. 10 public meeting on the development’s feasibility study.

Representatives of Brailsford and Dunlavey, the project management firm that conducted the feasibility study on the Bull Street Development, addressed some of those concerns during the meeting. Vice President Rich Neumann and Regional Vice President Jason Thompson said, based on comparable ballparks, 83 percent of the funding would have to come from the public and 17 percent from private sources.

Thompson said private investment would come from the team owner through either a lease payment with the city, revenue sharing, equity or a surcharge on the price of a ticket. Neumann said the primary costs ball clubs have to cover are FFEs, or furniture, fixtures and equipment costs. That could include scoreboards, uniforms, bats, ball and transportation.

Public financing would come in the form of general obligation debt; hospitality, hotel and retail taxes generated by visitors — most likely from visiting teams — an increase in sales tax and federal, state or county grants like those for using sustainable materials to construct the stadium.

Neumann said the city ultimately has to make a significant investment as no owner would build and invest in a stadium and expect to get a return based off ticket sales and sponsorships.

That sparked concern from some that the Bull Street Development’s success is contingent upon the stadium.

“For me its become too much about baseball,” said Kit Smith, a former Richland County council member. “Is this the triggering event?”

Freier said some of the concern from residents could be mitigated if his team had a chance to outline exactly what they proposed to do for the city.

“Lots of what was said the other day, people were creating things that would be terrible ideas and then say we’re against it. Okay, well that’s fine, but that doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re proposing,” Freier said.

Some questions remain as to whether the stadium would benefit Freier more than the city in the long run.

“That’s the ultimate question. Should the public sector fund the private sector so they can make money?” Neumann said.