By John Del Bianco
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s ceremonial first pitch for the Columbia Fireflies struggled to reach home plate last Thursday. The big question is whether the new Spirit Communications Park and the ultimate redevelopment of Bull Street will have that same fate or be a home run.
Thursday marked the official start of activity in the Commons at BullStreet redevelopment, a project that has received mixed reviews in the general public and has been met with skepticism by some city officials.
According to Lennar Commercial, one of two companies hired to develop the area, more than 75,000 households and more than 175,000 people live within five miles of the redevelopment, including North Columbia residents who are some of the city’s most impoverished.
While the mayor sees the development as a positive for all residents, some like city council member Leona Plaugh and others worry that the money could have been better spent elsewhere, including upgrading the city’s water and sewer system.
Plaugh has recently supported the building of the stadium, saying that the decision to build it is now in the past and it is her job to help aid private investments instead of more public funding.
“I am anxious to do whatever I can to help make it as successful as it can possibly be. That includes the stadium. I think the caveat will be no additional subsidies,” Plaugh said.
The minor league ballpark, which now hosts the first professional team in Columbia since 2004, received $29 million in public funds and $6 million from Hardball Capital, the ownership group responsible for relocating the team from Savannah.
The baseball complex – which is now home to the Class A affiliate of the New York Mets - is just the start of what Benjamin envisions as the eventual crown jewel of the Midlands.
“When I very first ran for mayor, one of our key goals was to finally get the Bull Street development moving,” Benjamin said. “It had stalled for several years for a number of different reasons. I recognized that it had the potential to be a huge catalyst of economic development for the city so we had to get it moving.”
Formerly the site of the state’s mental hospital, the 181-acre property off of Bull Street – just a few blocks north of the majestic state capitol – will also feature a 20-acre park, movie theater, office space buildings, restaurants, a hotel, and close to 500 apartments.
Close to 100 retail and restaurant storefronts are planned for development by master developer Bob Hughes, the architect of Greenville’s revival, and his partners, which includes Hughes Commercial Properties and Lennar Commercial, a Miami-base retail and residential company.
At least five of the hospital’s historic buildings will be incorporated as part of the redevelopment rather than demolished.
“It’s important to take this development into context,” Benjamin said. “This is the largest developable parcel of land in any downtown east of the Mississippi. As the crow flies, it’s four blocks from city hall and the entire Bull Street parcel is two and a half times the size of our entire central business district and it’s going to fundamentally change Columbia for the area.”
A sell-out crowd of more than 9,000 fans watched as the Fireflies defeated the Greenville Drive 4-1 on Thursday’s opening night. Attendance numbers dropped as the series continued. The Friday and Saturday night crowds fluctuated around 5,000 fans per game and Sunday’s attendance was 4,037.
People raved about the Fireflies complex, but with dirt surrounding the exterior and grass parking lots, they know the rest of the development will take some time.
Councilman Howard Duvall said he heard positive reviews from people about the ballpark, but negative reviews about the parking and fireworks displays. He called them “teething pains,” ones that need to be addressed to satisfy neighboring communities.
“We’ve got to find a way to quiet down and make it a visual display of fireworks rather than an audio display. The neighborhoods are disturbed at 10:30 at night or later and that is just not suitable in an urban situation,” Duvall said.
Mike Santoro, a Columbia resident and opening night attendee, thought the stadium was beautiful, but fans and all Columbians need to be patient about new developments like noise, traffic, and construction.
“People are going to have to be patient with the redevelopment,” said Columbia resident Mike Santoro. “The ballpark is beautiful and I hope that once more attractions are built around it that this will be worth the amount of money the city has spent.”
The mayor, who described himself as a “half-decent” Little League player, hailed baseball as America’s pastime He said that was why the return of the professional game to Columbia was important to him
“As mayor over the last several years, I’ve had a chance to observe in several communities the incredible economic development aspect that minor league baseball also brings to the table,” Benjamin said.
So why so big a redevelopment?
The mayor wants the “talent,” as he calls it, to remain in Columbia and just like any team recruits, he wants the Commons at BullStreet to woo innovating and energetic people to the Midlands.
“We have to remain competitive for the best and brightest talent that grows here in our schools and universities, but also make sure we are able to recruit and retain talent,” Benjamin said. “This is very much about creating an economic development engine, taxable property that helps support all the great amenities a city should provide.”
The mayor added that it may have been hard at first for Columbians to envision the plans for the ballpark property, which passed by a 4-3 margin in council. But with the construction of the park, he said he believes residents will see the vision he and members of City Council had in the planning stages.
“I expect in five years we’ll see a significant amount of development, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of development and it’s going to allure Columbians for generations,” Benjamin said.
Editor Note: According to the site’s website, shopbullstreetsc.com, “BullStreet” in Commons at BullStreet is spelled without a space.