Columbia City Council hears updates, mixed public reactions about Bull Street, baseball stadium

As City Hall was packed with supporters and opponents of the proposed baseball stadium in the Bull Street development, residents found out how soon Columbia would have an answer on funding the $92 million project.

A packed crowd at City Hall listens as city council discusses the Bull Street development. Photo by Kelly Petty.

A packed crowd at City Hall listens as city council discusses the Bull Street development. (photo by Kelly Petty).

March 4 is the deadline City Manager Teresa Wilson and her staff project for the city to give council members additional information on financing, the city’s potential operating costs in the development, procurement for construction and economic development.

Assistant City Manager Melissa Gentry said the date also would be the time staff could present council with three draft agreements:

  • A Venue License Agreement that relates to the use of the stadium
  • A Venue Management Agreement that covers details regarding management and Operation
  • A Venue Development Agreement that outlines the development of the stadium

Gentry also said the city is working with Hardball Capital owner Jason Freier to remove the requirement that the construction of a parking garage on the property to trigger a stadium. The change also would require an amendment to the original agreement between the city and developer Bob Hughes.

The city’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Palen and the city’s financial advisers also released numbers for using a hospitality bond and an installment purchase revenue bond. They provided a scenario for structuring a $24 million hospitality bond, which is $6 million less than the original numbers released at the Feb. 4 meeting.

The structure for both bonds is the same, but at $24 million, the hospitality bond would cost less than one at $30 million. Still, the loss of funds from the hospitality bond possibly could hurt organizations that rely on those dollars to fund their projects.

Mayor Steve Benjamin spoke earlier in the day to arts organizations at the Columbia Museum of Art and vowed they would not be underfunded, despite projections from Palen that revenue fund could take a hit depending on how council opted to pay for the development projects.

city council baseball meeting 1

Supporters of minor league baseball in Columbia hold up posters. (photo by Kelly Petty).

Financial advisers also revealed that if the city did take out a general obligation bond to pay for the investment purchase bond, the city would incur a debt total of $136, 620,022 against the city’s tax digest over the 30-year life of the loan. The amount is based on the maturity of the investment purchase bond, including interest combined with the interest incurred by the GO debt.

The number is assuming the city receives no other revenues and they take the complete installment purchase bond upfront.

Later in the evening, city staff agreed to look at the option of issuing a single general obligation bond to pay for the projects, which Benjamin was not anxious to consider. The idea was prompted by resident Mary Barksdale and recommended by councilwoman Leona Plaugh, as it could be a lower cost option long term.

Palen explained that only using a GO bond would trigger a bond referendum that would have to go onto the November ballot as the city’s $40 million debt limit was is lower than the amount needed to cover the project. That received an applause from those who want to see more resident involvement in the process.

The option also could mean a potential significant tax increase.

Palen said he wanted to give council scenarios with the least possible options for revenue sources.

“From a conservative point of view, we looked at everything as if we had to finance everything at Day One,” he said.

Confusion over numbers seemed to be a source of frustration among some residents who attended and city staff. Between estimates from the baseball feasibility study, Freier’s projections and the city’s finance options, some people thought they were getting a fuzzy picture of what real numbers for the project looked like.

“I’ve heard figures all over the place,” said Bob Wyman. “Why do we have to pay for a private developer’s risk?”

Council also got an earful from a crowd that was split nearly down the middle in support or opposition of a number of aspects regarding the project, including the stadium, the development or the finances.

“You either vote no  on the stadium or let taxpayers decide how to pay for the stadium,” Jim Reed said.

Those who were in favor of the stadium and the Bull Street develop,ent, which is being referred to as Columbia Commons, were mainly composed of three groups — young professionals, residents who lived in poorer neighborhoods close to the development and those who live in Richland and Lexington counties looking for a reason to return to the city.

“We have an opportunity here with the Bull Street project,” said Moe Brown. “Don’t limit Columbia, don’t limit what we can do.”

Council members hear from the public about Bull Street development and ballpark. Photo by Kelly Petty.

Council members hear from residents about the Bull Street development and ballpark. (photo by Kelly Petty).

Supporters mostly cited the need to keep talent from the University of South Carolina and other colleges in the area, as well as attracting new talent to build economic development and jobs.

“We have a sports management program,” said Willie Washington, Benedict College’s athletic director. “Our students would not have to go out of Columbia to get an internship.”

Those in opposition were primarily older residents who felt the city should focus on making improvements to public works, public safety and city assets that need attention. They also weren’t keen on the finance options, saying they thought it was putting a heavy burden on taxpayers.

“This is a deal that won’t work,” said William Fast. “It’s just not a good deal and you can’t make it a good deal.”

Benjamin, who got in heated debates with some of those who attended to speak, reiterated his goal to bring progress to the city.

“Twenty-first century economic development recognizes that density is important,” he said. “We get to turn high value property to the city’s tax rolls.”