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Columbia City Council moves Hardball Capital deal forward; pressure on Savannah to make a decision

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

March 4, 2014 – The City Council of Columbia, SC. voted Tuesday night on an agreement with Hardball Capital of Atlanta, owners of the Savannah SandGnats baseball team, that would bring a minor league baseball team to that city and build them a new $35 million stadium.  Whether the team is the SandGnats - or another team - is still up in the air.  Team owner Jason Freier told the Savannah Business Journal Monday that he needs a decision by Savannah by this coming September.

By a vote of 4 to 3, Columbia council members approved two ordinances that include a deal with Hardball Capital to build a year-around stadium and use the venue for multiple purposes, and approved a commercial development agreement for the area with an area development company. The city management team's strategy for funding both aspects of development in the Bull Street area of downtown Columbia was also approved.

Final votes on all agreements will take place in two weeks.

First up, the council voted on a deal with Hardball Capital that authorizes the Columbia City Manager to execute a ‘Venue License Agreement’ for the planned multi-use entertainment facility in the Bull Street Development, according to the Council’s agenda.

Next up, the Council voted to authorize the Mayor to execute a First Amendment to Development Agreement between the City of Columbia, South Carolina and Hughes Development Corporation, as equitable owner and developer, of approximately 165 acres of land within the City of Columbia commonly known as the Department of Mental Health's "Bull Street Campus,” contingent on first approving the deal to bring a baseball team to Columbia.

And finally, the Council tentatively approved a financing plan that includes issuing bonds over a five year period, totaling $57.1 million, primarily hospitality bonds. Included is a $25.9 million parking garage. Additional costs include storm water, public roads and other utilities and improvements.  The City’s obligation in the agreement reached with the developers is for $31.2 million for the development.

Also to be financed is a new “multi-use” facility for $29 million.  The City of Columbia will commit 76.3% of the cost for $29 million; Hardball Capital will put in $6 million (15.8%); and Hughes Development will commit $3 million toward a new stadium.

The new stadium will be bonded in year one of the project.  The city’s bonds will be financed out through 2044, according to a financial plan to be presented to the City Council.

The City’s commitment will be repaid through a hospitality tax bond, collected over 30 years, from projected economic development in the area.

Hardball Capital has also committed to pay all maintenance costs of the ballpark, and pay for all capital improvements and maintenance – not always the way that deals are structured, Freier explained in an interview Monday with the Savannah Business Journal.

But, he’s confident of the strength of what the ballpark will generate in development – and the success that he will find by bringing a minor league team to that City, whether or not it is the SandGnats.  His position was supported by two consultants familiar with ballparks who spoke Tuesday.

According to Freier, “If you look at the most successful ballparks in the U.S. – the top 40 parks both minor and major leagues – they are located downtown where people can get to the park quickly after work, and use the downtown.” 

Hardball Capital continues with discussions with the City of Savannah about whether the SandGnats will stay in Savannah.  (See related story on new RFP by Savannah officials regarding Grayson Stadium.)  Hardball president Jason Freier says that he needs an indication by this coming September on whether the City is going to work through a solution for a new stadium.  At that juncture, if the SandGnats are going to stay in Savannah, he will need to start working on buying a third baseball team - he also owns the team in Fort Wayne, Indiana - to fulfill his obligations to bring a team to Columbia, SC.


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