Commissioners to face pitches on baseball financing plan

Public can observe at Wednesday meeting

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

On Wednesday, Clark County commissioners will have a long-awaited work session on the financing portion of a public-private proposal to bring minor league baseball to Vancouver.

Consider this article your scouting report.

Public meeting

What: Clark County commissioners’ baseball financing work session.

When: 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Where: Sixth-floor hearing room, Clark County Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St.

In keeping with a baseball theme, here are nine things to know about a proposal to move the Yakima Bears, a Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, into a $22.7 million stadium at Clark College.

1. Some residents say, ‘Play ball!’

Chris Gissell, a 1996 Hudson’s Bay High School graduate, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs then spent 14 years getting paid to play baseball.

In 2004, the pitcher spent about 90 days in the majors with the Colorado Rockies.

These days, Gissell can still be found pitching, but to kids at Extra Innings, a franchise Gissell and co-owner Tucker Johnson opened in east Vancouver. At the 11,000-square-foot space, they offer speed and agility training and clinics where kids as young as 6 practice hitting, throwing and fielding.

On a recent Friday, Gissell was wearing a “Let’s Get Our ‘A’ Game On,” T-shirt, one of approximately 300 that have been sold.

For baseball lovers like Gissell, the proposal is a no-brainer.

They don’t mind a proposed 5 percent admissions tax, which could be applied countywide to any place people pay admission: movie theaters, concert venues, golf courses and batting cages.

Even though the tax could affect his business, Gissell said, the benefits of having a professional baseball team in Vancouver outweigh the drawbacks.

“From what I hear from our customer base, there shouldn’t be an issue if we have to impose the tax,” he said.

He recalled his days in the minor leagues, and the love fans showed to teams even though players rotate in and out.

“Those were their players,” he said. “Fans loved them. Kids would get autographs — you’re signing balls and shirts and hands and arms.”

Other supporters: the Downtown Vancouver Association, Identity Clark County and the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

2. Other residents cry, ‘Foul!’

Other business owners who are potentially subject to the tax have not been as supportive, including Brian Barnes of the Washougal Motocross. Barnes told the Vancouver City Council in July he should not have to collect a tax to support a venue that would compete for people’s limited entertainment dollars.

Other speakers at a July 25 citizens’ forum asked whether a stadium was the best use of public money at a time when public services are being cut.

The Arnada Neighborhood Association, which includes residents who live across Interstate 5 from the stadium site, hosted a June forum, and approximately a dozen residents showed up to express concerns over noise, lights and parking. They were told that, if the proposal gets to the permitting stage, a traffic and parking analysis would be completed and the site would be designed to mitigate the impact of noise.

Bridget Schwarz said Friday that the Neighborhood Association Council of Clark County and the Vancouver Neighborhood Alliance will host a public forum on the baseball proposal, 7 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Clark County Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St.

3. No crowd participation at the work session

Commissioners have weekly work sessions where staff members give presentations so commissioners can make informed policy decisions. Work sessions are open to the public, but, unlike at a regular meeting, there’s no scheduled public testimony. Bronson Potter, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, is expected to give a brief overview of the admissions tax. Adriana Prata of the county’s budget office is expected to give revenue estimates (as high as $965,000 a year, but commissioners have said they will exclude nonprofit organizations and Commissioner Marc Boldt said he won’t support the tax if it is applied to the Clark County Fair, so projections are getting lower). Larry Frueh, finance program manager for investments and debt in the treasurer’s office, will give calculations on how much money the county can afford over the 20-year term of a bond. That amount will change depending on the bond rating secured by the team’s owners, Frueh said last week.

4. The public’s pockets aren’t as deep as the New York Yankees’

Short Season LLC, the owners of the Bears, announced in May that they would like to move the team to Vancouver. The Bears won exclusive negotiating rights in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area, which, with the departure of the Portland Beavers, became as the largest metro area in the country without a professional baseball team. They proposed a 70-30 public-private split for capital costs and offered to pay ongoing maintenance and operations costs. The owners would also arrange financing, as the county said bonds will not be backed by the county’s general fund. Deputy Treasurer John Payne said in June the county could afford maybe 53 percent of capital costs. Frueh said the numbers he’ll present don’t support a 70 percent split. Ron Arp, a spokesman for Short Season LLC, said Friday the team’s proposal was based on attendance of 2,900 people a game. A study commissioned by the CREDC estimated attendance as high as 3,500 people a game. That would enable the team to pay more, Arp said, so if the county says it can’t afford 70 percent, there’s room to negotiate.

5. Admissions taxes are common, controversial

No city in Clark County has an admissions tax, and Vancouver is the largest city in the state without one.

While the tax isn’t uncommon statewide, the way the county proposes to use the tax is different from other models.

Other counties that have an admissions tax don’t make other venues collect the tax — which forces the venues to either raise ticket prices or take a 5 percent cut on profits — to support an unrelated enterprise. Rather, they either let the venues keep the revenue, or funnel the money into the county’s general fund, to be used for basic municipal services.

Two more facts that might not sit well with commissioners? Justin Kobluk, executive director of the Fairgrounds Site Management Group, wrote in a July 31 quarterly report that an admissions tax on the fair and Clark County Events Center could end up hurting the county if it drives down ticket sales. Plus, a tax on concerts at the privately owned Sleep Country Amphitheater could hurt a venue that has fallen so short of estimated revenues that county commissioners have cut lease payments.

Potter has not drafted an admissions tax ordinance — which would list what would be taxed — because he’s waiting to see what commissioners want. If commissioners agree Wednesday to go forward, a public hearing on the tax will be scheduled for September.

6. Supporters bill it as bigger than baseball

Supporters don’t call the stadium a baseball stadium. They call it a multipurpose facility to emphasize that the Bears would use it for only 38 games a year. After the construction bonds are paid, ownership would be turned over to a public entity, most likely Clark College, Arp said, but the state attorney general’s office would help in making that decision. Clark College teams would use the stadium 33 percent of the time, according to figures from project manager Mike Thiessen of Short Season LLC. Thiessen said youth teams would use the stadium 42 percent of the time. He also factored in community events (5 percent) and high school events (7 percent) as uses for the stadium, which would have up to 4,000 seats. A study by the CREDC estimated the facility would attract youth tournaments, particularly given its nearness to Propstra Stadium at Hudson’s Bay High School.

The study, done by Paul Dennis and Eric Hovee, found the project would generate $206.5 million over the expected 20 years of public-private investment. That figure includes $34.5 million in construction, $4.6 million annually from professional baseball and $4 million annually from having the stadium used for regional and national tournaments.

7. No alternate funding has been publicly identified

Commissioner Steve Stuart says he wants to hear alternatives to the admissions tax. Nothing else has been proposed; no individuals have come forward to help pick up the tab. Clark College, which will donate the land for the field and allow the team to use the school’s parking lots, has said it won’t provide funding. (The land and parking cut project costs by approximately $4 million.) The school’s foundation has not stepped up. Last month, Ara Serjoie, vice president of development for the Clark College Foundation, said $50 million of the foundation’s $60 million has been earmarked by donors to go toward specific programs or scholarships. Even $10 million marked as “unrestricted” has to be used to fulfill institutional obligations.

Other public financing could come from a dedicated sales tax or lodging tax, but county employees have said those are not realistic options.

The team’s owners suggested the admissions tax because it’s not currently used and it’s a tax on discretionary spending.

People who have $10 to spend on a movie ticket, they figured, have $10.50.

8. Boldt is the swing vote …

At the end of the work session Wednesday, commissioners will say whether they want to proceed with the proposal. If attitudes they’ve expressed in the past persist, Commissioner Tom Mielke will vote no, Stuart will say yes and then the whole matter hinges on Boldt. If he says yes, the county will schedule a public hearing on the admissions tax. If Boldt says no, expect Milwaukie, Ore., which says it wants a team from the Northwest League, to make a play for the Bears. Arp said Friday the Bears are committed to Vancouver, but if the team isn’t wanted in Clark County, the Bears still want to be in the Portland-Vancouver market. While the team still hopes to start construction this fall and open the 2012 season in Vancouver, its lease in Yakima does not expire until 2015.

9. … but don’t underestimate the Vancouver City Council

The city would have to issue permits for the stadium, but the team’s owners approached Clark County because they want the countywide admissions tax. However, the majority of admissions tax revenues are driven by action in the city of Vancouver. The city cannot legally promise the county it won’t enact an admissions tax “over the top” of the county’s because such an agreement would inappropriately bind future city councils from enacting a local tax. Instead, the city and county would need an agreement that specifies how much money the city would direct to the county to support the construction bond payoff.

A majority of city councilors have expressed reservations, if not outright objections, to such a commitment. If the city enacted its own admissions tax, it could use the revenues to pay for basic services.

Investors in the stadium will likely need reassurance from the council that the city’s share of admissions tax revenue would be secure.

On July 25, the council gave City Manager Eric Holmes the OK to research the issue, but hasn’t publicly discussed it since.

So even if Boldt votes to keep the proposal alive on Wednesday, the game will not be over.

Stephanie Rice: http://www.facebook.com/reporterrice; http://www.twitter.com/col_clarkgov; stephanie.rice@columbian.com.