In 2016, after an 11-season absence, the city of Columbia, South Carolina, will once again be home to a Minor League Baseball team.
This fast-approaching reality was made tangible Tuesday morning, as a groundbreaking ceremony was held to mark the start of construction on Spirit Communications Park. This estimated 8,500-capacity facility is the centerpiece of Columbia's Bull Street development project, a public-private partnership located on the grounds of what was formerly the South Carolina State Hospital. Columbia last hosted Minor League Baseball in the form of the South Atlantic League's Capital City Bombers, who relocated to Greenville, South Carolina, following the 2004 campaign.
Spirit Communications Park, designed by Populous architectural firm, will be built at an estimated cost of $37 million, with $30 million coming from the city and the remaining $7 million from the Hardball Capital ownership group. Hardball Capital, headed by chairman and CEO Jason Freier, also owns the Fort Wayne TinCaps and Savannah Sand Gnats.
"This will make it real for a lot of people, but it's been real for us for a long time," said Freier of the groundbreaking ceremony as he drove into Columbia on Tuesday morning. "Funding was approved by city council back in April, and we've been working on design and our budget on a daily basis for the past eight months. … But until people see something happening, there's always going to be that question of 'Is this real or not?'"
As for why Hardball Capital was relocating a team to Columbia in the first place, Freier had a ready answer.
"I think that, if you came into this business 20 or 30 years ago, there were a lot of opportunities for efficiency gains by moving from a smaller market to a larger one. The Midwest League is an easy example -- they didn't have teams in Dayton or Fort Wayne, which are now possibly the two most successful teams in the league," said Freier. "But for more than a decade, that sorting out process is pretty much over. There are very few markets left that cry out for having a team, and Columbia is one of them.
"I've been looking at or thinking about Columbia for the last 10 years, from the time that [the Capital City Bombers] left," he continued. "The issue here wasn't one of market, it was one of facilities. ... We knew this was a good market and have noted all sorts of things. There is an extremely high youth baseball participation rate, and a couple of high schools here have been rated by Baseball America as having top 25 programs. And the University of South Carolina built a new ballpark here eight or nine years ago, and that's the second-highest attended collegiate program in the country. You've got a very strong baseball culture to go along with a good-sized market, so in our mind it was never a question of viability; it was a question of how to get a facility and get it done."
In this effort, Freier credits "forward-thinking" Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin and developer Bob Hughes, who is heading the 165-acre Bull Street retail and housing development project of which Spirit Communications Park will be a prime component.
"[Bull Street] is centrally located, but with areas of this size you have a 'first-mover' problem, in that no one wants to be sitting out there alone waiting for other things to come around," said Freier. "So you need something to get it started. With a multi-use facility and a Minor League Baseball team here, then you suddenly don't feel so lonely. We're big enough to do that, to serve as a kickstarter for future downtown development -- we had a great proof of concept because of how this worked in Fort Wayne [with the TinCaps]. We brought the mayor and [Columbia] business leaders to Fort Wayne to see it, and over time things progressed to where we were able to get city council approval. Now we're ready to roll."
As for which team will be relocating to Columbia, Freier said he isn't quite ready to make that announcement. The Savannah Sand Gnats, already part of the Hardball Capital portfolio, remain the most likely candidate. Savannah's Grayson Stadium is one of the oldest facilities in all of Minor League Baseball, and the team has consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the South Atlantic League's attendance figures.
Whichever that team may be, Spirit Communications Park will be ready to serve as host in 2016.
"There will definitely be some site challenges, such as a 28-foot dropoff from where home plate is located to the left-field corner," said Freier. "So a meaningful part of the budget will go toward the structure and dealing with the topography. But if something doesn't fit initially it doesn't mean we won't be able to add to it. ... We're thinking about building something great, and having the opportunity over time to make it better."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.