Commissioners float new baseball proposal to Yakima Bears

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Forget about a 70-30 public-private split for financing a $22.7 million stadium at Clark College for the Yakima Bears.

That proposal was shot down Wednesday by Clark County commissioners.

Commissioner Steve Stuart, the biggest baseball backer on the board, offered a counterproposal: The public — because the stadium would be available for public use such as youth sports 40 percent of the time — would pay 40 percent of capital costs through an admissions tax.

Short Season LLC, the owners of the Class A Yakima Bears, has committed to arranging the financing, paying 30 percent of capital costs and paying $400,000 a year in maintenance and operation costs.

Commissioner Stuart’s proposal

  1. Owners of the Yakima Bears privately construct multiuse stadium.
  2. The county levies a 5 percent admissions tax on events at the stadium, major movie theater complexes, the Clark County Fair and concerts at Sleep Country Amphitheater.
  3. Revenues stay with the jurisdictions (the city of Battle Ground, the city of Vancouver, Clark County) for the first five years. For the next 20 years, $800,000 in admissions tax revenue will be dedicated annually to paying off construction debt.

Clark College, which would use the stadium for its baseball, softball and soccer teams, would donate the land and parking but has not pledged money toward capital costs.

So that leaves 30 percent, approximately $6 million to $7 million, to be paid for by … anyone? Anyone? Hello?

Stuart said other investors need to step forward to ensure the community doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to land a minor league baseball team.

“All of this is truly the beginning of the conversation,” Stuart said after the work session. “I’m confident that people will step up with ideas on how to get this done.”

Commissioner Marc Boldt gave Stuart the second vote he needed to keep negotiating with Short Season LLC.

“The proposal is very interesting,” Boldt said. “I would be inclined to see it go forward.”

Mike Thiessen, project manager for Short Season LLC, said after the meeting that he and the owners would have to take a close look at Stuart’s proposal.

Thiessen said he will also have to consult banks to see if financing could even be arranged given that under Stuart’s plan the public revenues would not go toward stadium debt for five years.

The Bears, an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, have exclusive negotiating rights in the Portland-Vancouver metro area for another month.

Other cities, including Milwaukie, Ore., have expressed interest in getting a team.

The metro area is the largest in the country without a professional baseball team.

Thiessen said he had hoped that commissioners would set a date for a public hearing on an admissions tax, so the team could show the league that progress was being made.

K.L. Wombacher, co-owner and general manager of the Bears, said he would have to discuss Stuart’s proposal with co-owners Mike and Laura McMurray.

But nothing Stuart said made him want to walk away from Clark County, he said.

“I’m actually still in a good mood,” he said after the meeting.

Under Stuart’s proposal, a 5 percent admissions tax would only be levied at major movie theater complexes (single-screen theaters would be exempt), the new stadium, the Clark County Fair and concerts at the Sleep Country Amphitheater.

Earlier admissions tax revenue estimates had included Washougal Motocross, public golf courses and other events, such as Vancouver Volcanoes games.

Boldt earlier said he wouldn’t support taxing the fair to support a baseball stadium, but under Stuart’s proposal revenues for the first five years would go back to the jurisdictions.

Stuart said his plan would provide a short-term boost to the city of Vancouver, giving the city more than $600,000 a year for five years to put toward public services.

For the next 20 years, tax revenues, up to $800,000 a year, would be dedicated to paying off stadium debt. If collections fall short, the team or other investors would have to make up the difference. If collections exceed $800,000, the additional revenue would be returned to the jurisdictions.

The third commissioner, Tom Mielke, said he was disappointed nobody presented an idea that doesn’t include a new tax. He said he will only support the proposal if there’s a public vote on the tax.

Mielke questioned why Clark College wasn’t offering to pay part of the capital costs.

“Clark College has more money than God,” Mielke said.

Clark College President Bob Knight, who attended the work session, said afterward that the school can’t give anything beyond donating the land and parking.

The 4,000-seat stadium would be built east of Interstate 5 and west of Fort Vancouver Way, at the site of the current baseball field.

While the Clark College Foundation has $60 million, $50 million has been earmarked by donors and the balance of “unrestricted” funds still has to go toward fulfilling institutional obligations.

No other viable taxes

Before Stuart unveiled his proposal, commissioners heard a presentation from county employees who had been tasked with researching the proposal.

Senior policy analyst Axel Swanson said other minor league teams in the state play in publicly owned stadiums. Those include the Tri-Cities Dust Devils (stadium owned by the city of Pasco); the Everett Aquasox (stadium owned by the Everett School District); the Tacoma Rainiers (stadium owned by city of Tacoma); and the Spokane Indians (stadium owned by Spokane County).

If a stadium is built at Clark College, after the debt is paid the likely owner would be Clark College but that would have to be worked out with the state attorney general’s office.

Swanson said other revenue options aren’t feasible for one reason or another. Those include: a property tax, sales tax, lodging tax, public facilities district, gambling excise tax, real estate excise tax or parking tax.

That leaves the admissions tax, which is currently not levied by any city in the county.

Five counties and 47 cities statewide do use the admissions tax and there are no restrictions on how revenue can be used, Swanson said.

One key for bringing baseball to Vancouver remains the support of the Vancouver City Council. If the city adopts its own admissions tax, those revenues would not be able to be used to pay off stadium debt.

Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman attended the work session. He called Stuart’s proposal “intriguing.”

Letting the city keep the revenues for five years puts the council in the same position as a pending $2.3 million federal grant to reopen and staff Fire Station 6, Burkman said.

Does the council accept a revenue source it knows won’t last forever?

For now, people will be waiting to see if anyone steps forward with a checkbook.

If someone or some organization does step forward, expect the county commissioners to set a public hearing for an admissions tax.

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.

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