‘You’ve got to build a baseball stadium’

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Stephen Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, attend the 2021 Leadership Knoxville Annual Mayors’ Leadership Luncheon on May 7. Benjamin, the keynote speaker, explained how a Minor League Baseball stadium transformed his city. (Leadership Knoxville photo)

Stephen Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, didn’t mince words when he spoke in Knoxville in May at World’s Fair Park on the edge of the University of Tennessee campus and its iconic football stadium: “I realize that I am in the shadow of Neyland Stadium. But I will tell you that I don’t believe you can be a great American city without America’s greatest pastime. You’ve got to build a baseball stadium. I’ll leave it there.”

Benjamin, the keynote speaker at the 2021 Leadership Knoxville Annual Mayors’ Leadership Luncheon, addressed multiple opportunities for cities across the country, including entrepreneurship and revitalization.

“We believe strongly in public-private partnerships,” Benjamin said.

GEM Community Development Group has proposed just that with the City of Knoxville and Knox County to build a public multi-use stadium and private economic development in East Knoxville on the edge of the Old City. A newly formed Sports Authority will meet for the first time May 20 at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

If the Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission vote to approve the project, the Sports Authority would handle financing, building and managing the stadium. Boyd Sports would lease the stadium, which would become the home of the Tennessee Smokies, the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. The stadium also would host concerts, other sports such as soccer, festivals, farmers’ markets, corporate retreats and community events.

Columbia is home to the Fireflies, a Low-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, and plays at Segra Park in an area transformed from a long-abandoned mental health institute into The BullStreet District, a thriving urban development that is closing in on five years since the much-lauded, multi-purpose stadium opened in 2016. Segra Park is not just home to the Columbia Fireflies, but also hosts hundreds of other events, including concerts, high school football and sunrise church services.

Segra Park in Columbia, South Carolina (Photo by Columbia Fireflies)

“It has spurred amazing activity,” Benjamin said about an area that is now a┬ábusiness, residential and recreational hub.

Baseball Digest named our stadium the stadium of the decade,” said Benjamin, who added during his speech in Knoxville that “I immediately heard some chattering that that wasn’t going to stand long, you guys are going to take us out. We’ll see how that goes.”

Benjamin was smiling when he spoke those words. He knows firsthand the impact a stadium can have a city.

It’s past time to bring America’s pastime back home to Knoxville.