COLUMBIA, S.C. — Stephen Benjamin, former longtime mayor of this state's capital city, said it wasn't easy to push through a new minor league ballfield that anchors a 181-acre tract.
"To say we had naysayers would be an understatement," he said last week to a group of Chattanoogans. "We had to work our tails off to make it happen."
But the upside is the $650 million in development that has sprung up so far, along with the stadium that opened in 2016, Benjamin told the two dozen people from Chattanooga and Hamilton County who toured the ballpark and saw new office buildings, residences and retail shops around it.
The group of public officials and private citizens traveled on a one-day trip to Columbia to see what a proposed $86.5 million ballpark for the Chattanooga Lookouts might yield for the 141-acre Wheland Foundry/U.S. Pipe parcel in the South Broad District.
Benjamin, who in January finished a 12-year stint as mayor, said the $37 million stadium and resulting development in what's known as the Bull Street District near Columbia's center is "probably the most important thing we got done" for the future and prosperity of that city's families.
He said a Chattanooga stadium like Columbia's Segra Park, which can hold about 9,000 people, has to serve as a catalyst for more private sector development.
"You have to build someplace that becomes a center of gravity," he said about the ballpark that was financed through a public-private partnership. "It was about getting people to dream bigger."
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said after touring the Columbia site that the Lookouts, seen as the primary user of a similar-sized stadium, would be the anchor tenant at a site that's now mostly a vacant collection of dilapidated foundry buildings along Interstate 24 entering the city.
He said the ballpark would "leverage all the other investment." Already, a Nashville company, Core Development, is looking at purchasing property on 11 acres next to the proposed stadium for $150 million worth of residential and commercial space.
Over time, Lookouts stadium proponents estimate some $1 billion of new development could come to the former foundry site.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the growth seen around Segra Park is what's anticipated surrounding the proposed new South Broad facility to replace the aging AT&T Field on Chattanooga's riverfront.
"The stadium's progress has been phenomenal," he told the group from Chattanooga about the economic activity at the Columbia site.
Coppinger said he's surprised at the reception the proposed project has received among some Tennessee legislators who continue to indicate they need more information about the Chattanooga initiative.
The city and county are seeking a $13.5 million state contribution to help fund the stadium and another $7.3 million for environmental remediation. The project proposal also foresees the use of state and local sales tax revenue totaling $15.6 million, incremental property tax revenue of $19.4 million from anticipated adjoining development and non-property tax revenue from the city and county of $8.4 million in a 50/50 split.
Private money includes lease payments by the Lookouts of $19.6 million and $10 million in contributed foundry land for the stadium. A city-county sports authority would issue an estimated $63 million in 30-year bonds to pay for construction, plans show.
Last week, members of a legislative panel approved a motion from Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, that slapped a "negative" recommendation on his own bill to allow local officials to keep a portion of state sales taxes to help pay off the bonds. All five panel members, including Senate Finance Committee chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voted for the negative recommendation.
While the recommendation can be changed later, it would require support of Hamilton County legislators, even as some remain skeptical about the project.
Coppinger said local officials are providing legislators with "as much information as we possibly can."
He said when he reads such complaints about information, "I feel like I've been in the twilight zone sometimes."
Also, Kelly touched on the issue of fairness over whether the state will provide funds to Chattanooga for the proposed Lookouts facility.
He said a similar ballpark in Knoxville received $13.5 million last year, and a recent news report indicated the state may provide some funding for a possible new Tennessee Titans football stadium in Nashville.
"It offends most people's basic sense of fairness," Kelly said.
Still, the idea of publicly financing sports stadiums has its critics.
Mark Cunningham, vice president of strategy and communication at the Nashville conservative think tank the Beacon Center, said studies show that taxpayer-funded stadiums are "terrible investments."
"The fact is that Chattanooga is a great place for companies to move and private investment would likely have taken place with or without this stadium," he said in an email.
Cunningham said the proposed Chattanooga stadium deal is "an absolute boondoggle for taxpayers and a great example of middle- and lower-class Chattanooga and state taxpayers subsidizing the pet projects of millionaires and billionaires."
He said that while Beacon Center is against any tax dollars going to such a project, there absolutely should be no state money for the proposed facility. He said Hamilton County taxpayers should at minimum get a say in their money going to the stadium via a referendum.
But the former Columbia mayor told the Chattanooga group to "focus on the math, focus on the data."
"We focused a lot on the numbers," Benjamin said. "Tell how this development will benefit you and your children."
Jason Freier, who is managing owner and chief executive for the Lookouts and the Columbia Fireflies, said the $650 million in investment was done on only 25% of the Columbia site.
Ultimately, the former state mental hospital campus that had been vacant for 20 years could hold some $2.5 billion in development, he said.
Freier told the Chattanooga group, most who traveled to Columbia on a bus funded by the Lookouts, that there are more than 1,000 people now living on the tract in various forms of new housing.
Also, he said, among the companies that have landed on the campus is Capgemini, a multinational business in technology services that includes offering cyber-security for Fortune 500 companies. Freier said Capgemini, which has more than 500 employees in the Bull Street District, sought a location that its employees would see as attractive.
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Sabrena Smedley said after visiting the Columbia site that it's much more than a stadium, citing residences and retail space.
"I can see how it transforms a community," said Smedley, who is in the race for county mayor. "If we move forward on this, I'd like to see a city, county and state partnership."
County Commissioner David Sharpe said the stadium and Bull Street District are drawing people and businesses.
He said that Charles Woods, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce vice president for economic development who also was in Columbia, could see that the district wooed high-paying jobs.
Chattanooga City Councilman Darrin Ledford said the Columbia campus "breathes life and energy."
"That's worth taking a really close look at," he said.
Ledford added that Segra Park is open to the public during daytime hours even when games aren't played there.
Freier also is managing owner of a third minor league team, the Fort Wayne TinCaps, where another public-private partnership built a similar stadium in 2009.
Mike Nutter, president of the TinCaps, said in a telephone interview that about $1 billion in economic development activity has popped up around that downtown ballpark since Parkview Field opened 13 years ago.
Nutter said the TinCaps average about 5,848 people each home game at the more than 8,000-seat stadium. That's up from 2,800 per game the team saw at a more than 16-year-old ballpark in another part of the city before Parkview was constructed for about $32 million, he said.
Offices, residences, restaurants, and hotels are among other developments, according to the team. More than 700 non-baseball functions each year are held at the stadium ranging from parties, weddings and batting-practice get-togethers to fitness races.
"People under-estimated at the time the amount of non-baseball stuff," Nutter said.
He said the ballpark has helped get Fort Wayne's "swagger and confidence back."
Mark Becker, a health care consultant who was Fort Wayne's deputy mayor at the time the ballpark won approval from government officials, recalled the concept had received "significant public opposition."
But he said that supporters focused on the opportunity the stadium could bring when it came to mixed-use development, housing and retail.
"That's what sold it," Becker said, adding that there were a lot of public meetings and presentations, and ultimately a majority of city council people supported it. "More than a decade later, everyone points to the success of the ballpark as a turning point downtown."