Does Building a Public Ballpark Make Sense for Columbia?

The City of Columbia’s proposed Development Agreement: Bull Street Neighborhood with Greenville’s Hughes Development Corporation includes an effort to build a new baseball stadium in order to attract a minor league club to Columbia. The City commits (at p. 22 of that agreement) “to consider financing methodologies which could provide approximately $20 million to construct the new stadium and necessary improvements.” Leaving aside whether $20 million will build a new baseball stadium with all the revenue generating features sought by team owners, the question is: “Is this a good economic development investment for Columbia?”

First, let’s be clear. If a minor league club moves to Columbia, I will have season tickets just like I did when the Bombers played in Columbia. I was, for several years until last year, the Co-Chair of the Business of Baseball Committee of SABR, the baseball research society. It’s not about who loves baseball. It’s about good fiscal and public policy.

A large body of academic research has concluded that public funding of sports facilities rarely makes sense from a financial or economic development perspective. The reasons are pretty clear-cut:

  • Minor league baseball does not attract people from outside the immediate area to attend games. If a Columbia team put 400,000 fannies in the seats for all events each year as projected by the agreement, nearly all of those folks would be from Columbia and environs. [Even if minor league teams attracted tourists, we have our doubts about trying to promote tourism for an outdoor summer sport played in “Famously Hot” Columbia.] So it’s not bringing in new revenues—a core test of an economic development investment.
  • Baseball revenues come from discretionary spending. Absent a baseball game, those dollars get spent in existing restaurants, stores and movie theaters. So investing in a ballpark undermines existing businesses without adding to overall well-being.
  • Minor league clubs do not create many jobs and those they do create are generally low-paying and part-time. Visiting ball clubs, umpires and major-league affiliate employees simply don’t generate enough nights at cheap motels or meals at fast food places to drive an economy. Nobody is going to start a bat or baseball factory to support the ball club. A minor league ballpark is essentially an outdoor restaurant with entertainment, not the catalyst for new restaurants around it.
  • Unless cities drive much better deals than they usually do, the costs will outweigh the revenues. Do we need to discuss Columbia’s history here?
  • In any municipal economy, a sports team comprises a vanishingly small part of the economy—far too small to drive growth. The impact on personal income is insignificant.
  • Even if you could show some benefit from a ballpark, the commissioned studies to justify the expenditures almost never look at the opportunity costs of that investment. If we don’t plunk $20 million down for a ballpark, could we better invest those dollars for a more meaningful return (on infrastructure, education or workforce development to name just three possibilities) or get a better return by leaving Columbia taxpayers with more money to spend in existing businesses?

Does it ever make sense for a city to fund a ballpark? Some researchers who look at the question conclude that if the ballpark is a part of an urban revitalization or a “festival center” with many destination facilities located in a cluster then it makes sense. Classic examples are Baltimore’s Camden Yards and the collection of sports venues in Indianapolis or Columbus, Ohio. Here, the “festival center” rationale does not apply.

The development of the Bull Street Neighborhood is apparently going to occur. What is unclear is what impact a ballpark will have on the success or failure of that development. If it will have a significant positive impact on the development, why doesn’t Hughes Development Corporation pony up the funds? Or the owner of the new team? If it made economic sense they would … unless another sucker is willing to do it for them.

In the end, the rationale for public funding of a ballpark—and there is nothing politicians love more than throwing public money at rich people—will be pretty squishy. They will relate to things like standing. “Without a bush league ball club, Columbia will look like a bush league city.” Or culture—how important baseball is to the soul of America. Or how much the Mayor and other powerful people love the game. There is little research on any of those, which makes them quite handy for selling a ballpark which can’t honestly be sold on financial or economic development grounds.

I hope we get a stadium and a ball team. But the taxpayers who don’t enjoy or benefit from them shouldn’t have to put up the money to subsidize my hobby.

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One Response to Does Building a Public Ballpark Make Sense for Columbia?

  1. Kit smith says:

    Will you PLEASE COME TO PUBLIC HEARING Tuesday at noon in council chambers? Will confirm place and time.

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