Plans for minor league baseball in Vancouver show progress

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Plans to bring professional baseball to Clark County have hit first base — but plenty of uncertainties remain that might prevent the project from making it home.

The Clark County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday appeared ready to sign a letter of intent with Short Season LLC, the organization that owns the Class A Yakima Bears team.

The nonbinding letter, which is set to go before the board for approval on July 26, outlines what contractual agreements the county and team need to make to see a stadium open at Clark College in June 2012. The letter does not give any more details on a proposed 5 percent countywide entertainment admissions tax, which is expected to raise about $925,000 a year and be used to finance 70 percent of the $23 million stadium.

The county was also given a schedule of when different steps would be taken, including plans to adopt the entertainment tax next month and for construction to begin in October. The county plans to hold at least one public work session and one public hearing before voting on the admissions tax.

“We’ve got to try to get an aggressive timeline to be open by June 2012,” Project Manager Mike Thiessen said.

Wednesday’s work session was the first public meeting since plans for bringing the Yakima Bears to Vancouver were announced in May, and opponents of the project protested that there hasn’t been enough public input. The League of Women Voters sent a letter to the commissioners on July 5, asking for a detailed list of items that would be subject to the admissions tax and that the information be available to the public.

After Bronson Potter, Clark County’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, gave the commissioners a summary of the letter of intent, the majority of the meeting was given to Short Season LLC. Thiessen gave information on the project, including that it has 2,135 “likes” on Facebook. He emphasized the Bears’ owners wish to locate in Vancouver.

“We chose Vancouver and Clark County,” he said. “We spoke with Beaverton. We spoke with Hillsboro. We want to be here.” Both cities are in Oregon.

He also gave a preview of a soon-to-be released economic impact study commissioned by the Columbia River Economic Development Council, saying that the stadium will have a 400 percent return on investment. Details of the study to provide context of that figure were not available Wednesday.

The team also held a teleconference with the stadium’s architects, who showed plans for a up to 4,000-seat, 6,000-person-capacity stadium that blends with the trees on the site and includes grassy areas for people with blankets to sit along with traditional seats.

As team representatives paused to set up the teleconference, Ridgefield resident and project critic George Vartanian stood and asked Chairman Tom Mielke if his side would be allowed to speak, as well.

“We’re getting pretty much a justification for the project,” Vartanian said. “It seems to me proponents are getting an advantage by coming out early.”

Mielke then allowed a few questions from the audience, including one from a local small business owner, who asked: “That’s been my question all along, is how will this impact small businesses?”

Commissioner Steve Stuart said he did not feel the presentation was one-sided, saying that it was good to get the information that Short Season LLC was providing.

“I’ve asked early on that there be as much information as possible,” Stuart said. “We should never be afraid of getting information.”

The letter of intent gave the eight steps toward opening the stadium, which would also be available for community, youth sports and other events when the Bears are not playing one of their 38 summer games.

o The team will have to secure a ground lease for the Clark College location from the state. It has already sent in documents asking for the lease, Thiessen said.

o The county considers the entertainment admissions tax. The money would go into a facility fund for the stadium. No general fund money, which supports basic services such as public safety, would be used to back the stadium’s financing.

o The team privately finances, constructs and operates the stadium. Should the admissions tax fall short, Thiessen assured the commissioners the difference would be paid by owners.

o The team and Clark College must sign a facility use agreement that will outline the terms under which the college and other organizations may schedule and use the stadium. The owners would charge the college and other groups for renting the facility, although the team and college could agree to set aside community use days that are free or at a very reduced rate.

o The team recovers the operational costs of Clark College and community events.

o The team will design the facility in collaboration with Clark College and the county.

o Vancouver will be the lead agency for environmental review and land-use permits.

o All involved parties will sign a master facility development agreement that combines all the above details. “If and when the parties determine that they are ready to commit to the transaction, they will execute” the development agreement, the letter reads.

Along with possible citizen protest of the entertainment admissions tax, the Bears need the Vancouver City Council to agree not to enact an entertainment tax of its own. Money collected within Vancouver city limits is expected make up about $500,000 of the $965,000 countywide tax, so if Vancouver were to divert those funds, it would likely put the project in dire straits. County commissioners can enact the tax without approval from the city council, but the city council then could choose to designate the tax to something other than the stadium.

Stuart and Commissioner Marc Boldt have said they support the baseball project, while Mielke has said he will not support a tax without a public vote.

Still, Mielke joined the other two commissioners in saying he’s willing to sign a nonbinding letter of intent with the team.

“It’s a step along the way,” he said. “I have concerns about how much county resources will be put in. I have concerns about the financial portion. It’s a great idea, I just don’t know about the government’s role.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood; www.twitter.com/col_cityhall; andrea.damewood@columbian.com