Columbia SC is moving closer to building a minor league baseball $35 million stadium in partnership with Hardball Capital, the group that owns the Savannah Sand Gnats, the Mets’ a-ball affiliate. It’s possible the Gnats will move to Columbia, or Hardball will buy a new team to move to Columbia. Either way, it’s a story, as a Mets affiliate could move to a new city as soon as 2015.
So, there is a lot of baseball talk in Columbia, SC right now.
- This is a great synopsis of the history of baseball in Columbia and the City’s baseball facilities.
- In the State, Clif Leblanc compares Columbia’s proposed ballpark to the very successful Fluor Field in Greenville, SC. The opposition in Greenville to a stadium now cited as a catalyst for expanding downtown is pretty interesting. Greenville spent roughly $8.5 million in public money on the ballpark while Columbia is proposing roughly $29 million and Greenville collects property taxes on the stadium, while Columbia would not.
- Also in the State, Terry Brown, a “prominent” local businessman, who owns Edens, the largest privately owned shopping center developer, which is headquartered in Columbia, complained about many things South Carolina. His targets included the fact the State still flies the Confederate flag, the siting and method of the proposed ballpark’s funding, the juvenile behavior of SC’s elected politicians and the state’s low-tax policies which hurt spending on infrastructure and social services.
In the first of two required votes, Tuesday, the Columbia City Council voted to approve a venue license contract and funding for a new minor league baseball stadium that will provide the anchor for the Bull Street Development, called Columbia Commons. The vote was 4-3. The second and final vote is scheduled for March 18. A WIST reported tweeted play-by-play from the meeting.
Hardball Capital, which owns the Savannah Sand Gnats, would put up $6 million toward construction of the park which is currently budgeted to be $35 million. The City will pay for the remaining $29 million with a hospitality tax bond, to be repaid over 30 years.
This might be a Mets issue and might not. The Mets’ Player Development Contract with the Savannah Sand Gnats runs through the 2014 season. The two parties can renew anytime. Once the season ends without an agreement, the Mets and Gnats would each be free to hunt for other partners (the Mets for an a-ball team, the Gnats for a MLB team.) A Gnats franchise moving into a new ballpark in Columbia, would be very desirable for a MLB team’s perspective which wants the best developmental environment (new training facilities, weight rooms, batting cages, clubhouses) and yes, fans for their prospects. The Gnats lease with the City of Savannah also expires at the end of the 2014 season.
More financial details from The State:
Freier also has agreed to contribute yearly 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 annually 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.
Coladaily.com provides detail on the back and forth between councilmember Leona Plaugh, an opponent of the ballpark and Mayor Steve Benjamin, its leading proponent. “Plaugh wanted to delay the first vote on the stadium until April 1 to give staff time to execute a cost-benefit analysis on the venue. She also wanted to add a provision to the developer contract that would require Hughes to build 20 percent of residence properties in Columbia Commons as affordable housing.”
Consultant for the City, Rich Neuman of Brailsford and Dunlavey Consultants retorted that:
““I’ve never seen a cost/benefit analysis for a project like this.”
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.” (The State)
Building a stadium in Columbia for Opening Day 2015 will require approval on March 18 and a very brisk construction schedule. It is possible.
There are still a few scenarios in play ranked in rough order of likelihood in this author’s estimation:
- The Gnats leave Savannah for a new ballpark in Columbia for 2015.
- The Gnats leave Savannah for a new ballpark in Columbia for 2016 and sign a one-year lease in Savannah for 2015.
- IF the City of Savannah moves ahead with a new ballpark for the Gnats in Savannah, Hardball Capital would purchase another team and move that second team to Columbia for 2015 or 2016. Lynchburg in the Carolina League is for sale. Last month, the Savannah City Council, which has committed to an arena and arts center, did not sound very interested in building a new ballpark.
The City of Columbia, SC has expressed an interest in building a minor league ballpark as the centerpiece of a redevelopment project. The Sand Gnats, the Mets’ a-ball team, are one potential new tenant. Through late January, the Columbia project was moving right along. Now, that the city has to figure out how to pay for the projects, the process is getting tougher.
Tuesday, the Columbia, SC City Council met again on the proposal to spend $92 million on the Bull Street Redevelopment project which will also include a new ballpark (accounting for roughly $35 million of the project cost). The action in the meeting considered different funding mechanisms for the City’s contribution to the ballpark, which mostly dealt with the type and quantity of bonds the city can legally and practically issue. (ColaDaily)
There’s a lot more about the structure of potential bonds here. The City can either “wrap” or “layer” their bond payments around their existing obligations. Wrapping would keep the City’s total bond payments (including existing commitments) to ~$2.5 million annually through 2044, while layering would keep payments on the new Bull Street bonds constant- leading to higher bond payments from 2015-2025, and then smaller payments thereafter. (ColaDaily)
The next big public date is March 4, when “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”
The plans the city released this week, relied on two different bonds, a $24 million hospitality bond, and a installment revenue purchase bond. The hospitality bond is $6 million less than the $30 million price tag from February, prompting arts and cultural organizations, who already rely on that hospitality money, to fear they will face budget cuts. Mayor Steve Benjamin met with GoodSenseColumbia, representing the art organizations Tuesday. GoodSenseColumbia claims that phone poll conducted from “Jan. 30-31 of 402 registered voters … showed that 67 percent of respondents opposed a publicly funded stadium in the Bull Street development,” with similar results from a poll over the weekend (The State).
To read more of this story, click here
From Eric Curl in the Savannah Morning News:
Some members of the Savannah City Council have lost their enthusiasm for a new baseball stadium, now that the owner of the Sand Gnats has entered into negotiations with Columbia, S.C., for a minor league team and stadium there.
Mayor Edna Jackson and aldermen expressed their hesitation during a retreat on Tuesday, while discussing whether they still wanted to pay a consultant to analyze the feasibility of building a multi-use facility at the Savannah River Landing site, east of downtown.
The City Council is not balking over spending money on a ballpark. Rather, the current issue is whether the City will pay for a new feasibility and economic study. The last study, which one Alderman wants to review, was done in 2000.
Columbia, SC is working through the process of building a ballpark and has been negotiating with Hardball Capital, the Gnats’ parent company. However, a stadium in Columbia does not mean the Gnats are necessarily going to move. A new stadium in Savannah would keep the Gnats in the Coastal Empire.
As Hardball CEO Jason Freier explained to Curl:
Hardball is willing to purchase another team, he said, if both governments agree to stadium proposals.
“We are more than happy to do both,” he said. “All we need is the city of Savannah to show us they are interested in doing a project like this.”
The Columbia, SC City Council voted for the first time, as a unit to move forward on plans to build a new ballpark as part of the City’s Bull Street Development project. The Council has now authorized “formal” negotiations with Jason Freier, the CEO of Hardball Capital, the parent company of the Savannah Sand Gnats.
According to the State newspaper, the 5-2 vote followed a 5.5 hour meeting.
City Financial Planner Jeff Palen also suggested a plan which rests on a mix of bonds against future water and sewer revenues, loans and an existing surplus in water and sewer funds, to cover the City’s $90.2 in obligations for the ballpark and the infrastructure associated with the Bull Street development.
The next public step for Columbia will be February 4, when Council will look at proposed management and lease agreements.
Again, this is still only maybe a Mets’ story. The Mets’ Player Development Contract (PDC) with the Savannah Sand Gnats runs through the 2014 season. Extensions must be mutual. However, the Gnats were to move to Columbia, the Mets would most likely be thrilled to extend their working agreement so that their prospects would play in a new-state of the art facility.
Tuesday at noon, for the first time, the Columbia, SC City Council will have an open hearing on a proposed baseball stadium. This is a big day for the ballpark in Columbia, SC.
If you have not been following the story, if Columbia, SC agrees to work with the Gnats’ ownership group on a new ballpark, and Savannah does not, the Gnats will likely be headed to South Carolina.
According to Cola Daily, 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.”
- Jason Freier of Hardball Capital, the parent company of the Savannah Sand Gnats, wants the contract between the city of Columbia and Hardball Capital finished by March to open a ballpark in April 2015.
The State Says Wait
The State is Columbia’s largest newspaper. In an editorial today, the paper urges the Council to avoid rushing into a stadium agreement so that council can to review their options and funding mechanisms carefully.
City Council shouldn’t rush to OK a stadium deal.
There has not been ample time to review necessary facts — such as funding and what an agreement between Columbia and a minor league team would include.
Some would like to rush this process so the stadium can be built and ready for baseball in 2015. But City Council’s first obligation must be to the taxpayers; if that means taking an extra week or two to review this proposal, so be it.
I Do Not Follow This Math.
From Cola Daily:
The city already has invested about $50 million in the initial agreement for the Bull Street Development with Hughes [the site's developer]. Councilwoman Leona Plaugh also said the city is contractually obligated under the agreement to build two parking garages.
Jeff Palen, the city’s chief financial officer, said the two garages will cost about $10million to $12 million each, with infrastructure costs for water, sewer and roads totaling a little more than $31 million. Operating costs could run up to $42 million. All total, Palen said investment for the stadium and Bull Street could cost up to $93 million, though he said funding would be spread over a four- or five-year period in phases.
As I understand Palen’s math laid out in the preceding two paragraphs:
$50 million Initial Agreement (first paragraph above)
$42 million Parking Garages + infrastructure + Operating
$92 million Total
My point is that I do not see a ballpark in the preceding three lines. Add a $35 million ballpark to the $92 million the City of Columbia has already committed, and the price tag rises to $127 total. How the ballpark is financed and the share of costs borne by the city are still subject to negotiation, so the City’s share will likely be less than 100% of $35 million.
The preceding deals only with the cost side to the City and does not touch revenue, which should be significant. The ballpark (through lease payments and taxes) and the parking garages (through usage fees) will generate income directly for the City. In theory, the city’s costs are investments that will be paid off in whole or in part by economic activity and taxes in the area spurred by the garages and ballpark.
A Mets Team?
Again, the Mets’ Player Development Contract (PDC) with the Savannah Sand Gnats runs through the 2014 season. Extensions must be mutual. If the Gnats were to move to Columbia, the Mets would most likely be thrilled to extend their working agreement so that their prospects would play in a new-state of the art facility.
If the Columbia City Council approves the resolution above, they will have taken the next important step toward building a ballpark. Any other action is worse for the stadium. Even a minor delay now makes getting a ballpark up and running for Opening Day, 2015 harder.
The City of Columbia has taken another step forward to building a ballpark for a minor league team.
The State newspaper reported:
Greenville developer Bob Hughes has agreed in principle to donate the land for what would become perhaps the first anchor project on the sprawling Bull Street site.
Mayor Steve Benjamin corroborated the assertion made by Freier and said the land donation has been under discussion for several months. Benjamin gave a rough estimate of $3 million as the development-market value of the donated acreage.
So, to recap, Columbia now has land to go along with a commitment from Jason Freier, the CEO of Hardball Capital, which owns the Sand Gnats, to bring a team if Columbia builds a ballpark.
Remember, both the Mets’ Player Development Contract with the Sand Gnats, and the Gnats own lease with the City of Savannah expire at the end of the 2014 baseball season. So this might be a Mets story and it might not. For example, whether or not the Sand Gnats move to Columbia, they might not be a Mets affiliate in 2015.
Baseball Digest also offers this interesting nugget:
In the past Benjamin has positioned the Sand Gnats as the team to be moved, but it’s not as though Freier doesn’t have options: with teams in the High Class A Carolina League and Class AA Southern League on the market, we’re hearing it’s not a cinch that Savannah will lose its team.
Hardball Capital does not own a AA Southern League team or a High Class A Carolina League team, but this is an interesting scenario. It goes something like this: While negotiating with Columbia, SC on a ballpark for a team to be named later, Hardball Capital negotiates with the City of Savannah on a new ballpark for the Gnats. If Hardball feels that there is enough progress that a new stadium will happen in Savannah, it decides to keep the Gnats in Savannah. Then Hardball would buy either a Southern League team or a Carolina League team to move to the new ballpark in Columbia.
A Southern League team for Columbia seems a little unlikely. The Huntsville Stars are last in the League in attendance, while the Jackson Generals are second-to-last at only 1,954 per game. In January 2014, the Huntsville Stars were sold to a group that plans to move the team to Biloxi, MS for the 2015 season. Meanwhile, the Generals, who for years operated with a “For Sale/Willing to Move” sign, appear to be more committed to Jackson, TN than they have been in the past. In August, the City of Jackson approved $190,000 to improve the playing surface and drainage at the ballpark. In 2011, the Generals’ ownership signed a new nine-year lease with the city that runs through 2020 that includes a $1 million buyout if the team decides to move. That’s a pretty good downpayment on a team staying put, but it’s hardly a guarantee.
Meanwhile, in the Carolina League, the Lynchburg Hillcats, are the likely candidate for a buy and move sequence. The Hillcats, a Braves affiliate, appeared likely to move to Wilmington, NC where there was a tentative agreement to build a new ballpark in September, 2012. However, in November 2012, the voters rejected a plan to spend money on a new ballpark in Wilmington. The Braves had been planning to buy the Lynchburg franchise as part of the move. If Hardball bought the Hillcats, they would need to negotiate a buyout with the city of Lynchburg (per Baseball America):
The city financed a $6.5 million renovation of Lynchburg City Stadium in 2003 … Part of the renovation agreement with the city stipulated that the team would pay off any remaining debt on the ballpark if it was sold, and Sunwall [the Hillcats' GM] confirmed that the deal with the Braves will make the city whole.
In summary, if Savannah and Columbia, SC both approve new ballparks, I suspect Hardball Capital would purchase the Lynchburg Hillcats to move to Columbia, and keep the Sand Gnats in Savannah. However, if only Columbia builds a new ballpark, then I suspect the Gnats will head to Columbia and Lynchburg would open with a “For Sale” sign.
From the State in Columbia, SC:
Jason Freier, owner of minor league baseball teams in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Savannah, on Wednesday guaranteed he would bring a team to Columbia if the city builds a new ballpark as part of the redevelopment of the old State Hospital campus on Bull Street.
Here’s Freier’s quote:
“If we do a deal with Columbia, we’ll bring an affiliated minor league baseball team here. I have a lease in place with the city of Savannah that runs through end of the 2014 season. We have no legal commitments with the city of Savannah beyond the 2014 season. We would love to work with the city of Savannah. It’s what we’ve told them and that’s the truth. But if we made a commitment to the city of Columbia, that commitment would be our first commitment. We wouldn’t make any commitments to Savannah after that.”
Other important nuggets from the State:
- Freier suggested that the ballpark could be built for $35 million, not the $42 million Columbia has budgeted. The $35 million is consistent with the price Freier suggested for a new ballpark in Savannah when he proposed a new stadium in December.
- Freier has already been working very closely with the developer of the site, Bob Hughes, and make changes to the original design. The State: “Freier and Bull Street developer Bob Hughes of Greenville said that two historic buildings presently not protected under the development agreement with the city have been incorporated into a new configuration of an 8,000-seat stadium and could be saved.”
- The University of South Carolina and its Athletic Department has given the project its blessing.
Again, this deal is not done yet, but Columbia has put the pieces in place and now has a team, if they build a ballpark.
The City of Columbia SC City Council has received and now reviewed a planning study suggesting that building a new ballpark, with a construction budget of $41.8 million, would bring $400 million to the city over 30 years. This study, by Brailsford & Dunlavey, was commissioned in November.
Wednesday’s story in the the State, Columbia’s newspaper makes the Sand Gnats connection explicit, “Columbia officials are talking with Savannah Sand Gnats owner Jason Freier about potentially moving the Class A South Atlantic League team here if Freier can’t convince Savannah to build a new stadium to replace Grayson Stadium, built in 1926.”
The Sand Gnats’ lease with the City of Savannah and their player development contract withe the New York Mets both run through the 2014 season. I believe that it is still possible, if things move quickly enough in Columbia that the Gnats could move to Columbia (with the Mets renewing, or with a new MLB affiliation for the 2015 season).
The full report from B&D is here.
If the Mets want a Triple-A affiliate closer than Las Vegas for the 2015 season, they would be well-advised to make some friends in Rochester in a hurry.
Yesterday, William Ladson reported that the Washington Nationals and the Syracuse Chiefs would extend their working agreement through the 2018 season.
A little history first. Following four years with the Buffalo Bisons from 2009 through 2012, in which the Bisons saw attendance decline, the Bisons sought an affiliation with the closer Toronto Blue Jays. That pushed the Mets west to Las Vegas and the 51s where they signed a two-year player development contract for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Remember, Player Development Contracts are almost always mutual, both the Major League and the Minor League team must want to be partners with each other. The exception is the 30th team. If the Mets and Las Vegas are the last big league team and the last minor league team without a dance partner at a given level AAA through a-ball, they are forced onto the floor together.
There are five teams in the East Coast(ish) International League with PDCs that expire at the end of 2014: Columbus Clippers (CLE), Durham Bulls (TB), Norfolk Tides (BAL), Pawtucket Red Sox (BOS), Rochester Red Wings (MIN).
1. Columbus, in a new ballpark, is very happy to be affiliated with Cleveland, which is just over two hours away.
2. Norfolk, which booted the Mets in 2006, when team representatives said things like “They took us for granted,” seems unlikely to be interested in returning to life as a Mets affiliate especially with a PDC with the geographically proximate Orioles in place.
3. Pawtucket isn’t leaving the Red Sox for anything.
4. Durham and Tampa have had a productive relationship for 15 years. I’m not sure what would make Durham jump from Tampa to the Mets.
So, if the Mets want to land an affiliation back in the International League for the 2015 season, Rochester is the move. However, two years ago, faced with a Mets franchise looking for a new International League affiliate, Rochester resigned with Minnesota. The Wings were 72-72 in 2012 and 77-67 in 2013.
Will this round be any different?
The other option for the Mets is a more eastern home in the Pacific Coast League. In particular, Nashville is planning on spending $150 in public and private money million on a new ballpark area, with roughly $50 million coming from the Nashville Sounds, a Brewers affiliate at the moment, for the ballpark and associated retail. In August, this was an $80 million project, but it keeps growing.
If the Mets are interested in a new ballpark in the PCL, the Las Vegas ownership group and developer Howard Hughes Corp is interested in a $65 million ballpark in Summerlin and expressed optimism in May that they could make the ballpark happen. There is now some opposition from unions regarding the $88 million project, which means at least someone is paying attention and thinks the plan has a chance to succeed.
So, the choices for the Mets: stay west and target a new ballpark or aim for the Red Wings?
The chart after the jump lists each International League franchise and their PDC status, as best as I could determine.
The 2014 International League PDC Scene
||Toronto Blue Jays
||Chicago White Sox
||Tampa Bay Rays
|Lehigh Valley IronPigs
|Pawtucket Red Sox
||Boston Red Sox
|Rochester Red Wings
|Toledo Mud Hens