City council OKs researching baseball plan

Several members have problem with admissions tax to fund stadium

By Andrea Damewood and Stephanie Rice

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The Vancouver City Council got its first formal presentation Monday on a proposal for the Class A Yakima Bears to move to the city.

With the exception of Councilor Pat Campbell, who said “we don’t need a baseball team now,” the council gave City Manager Eric Holmes the OK to research the issue and engage in potential discussions with Clark County.

Clark County commissioners are expected to sign a non-binding letter of intent Tuesday with Short Season LLC, the owners of the Yakima Bears.

If commissioners sign the letter, the county will want to discuss an interlocal agreement with the city on issues including financing, Holmes said.

The proposal includes plans for a $23 million stadium at Clark College and a countywide entertainment admissions tax.

Revenues from the tax would pay off construction debt; the stadium would be publicly owned but maintained by Short Season LLC.

The county estimates $900,000 could be collected every year. More than half of that would be collected within Vancouver city limits.

The tax would raise the price of a $10 movie ticket to $10.50, for example.

When councilors asked why any type of public financing was necessary, project manager Mike Thiessen of Short Season LLC said the team would be putting up 30 percent of the construction costs for a stadium it would use 13 percent of the time.

The Yakima Bears would play 38 games a summer.

Thiessen said a stadium built last year in Illinois used public money, but it came directly out of a city’s general fund.

Councilors Larry Smith and Jack Burkman said they wanted to hear alternatives to an admissions tax. They didn’t get any.

After the workshop, co-owner K.L. Wombacher said the team does have alternate plans, but they don’t involve the city of Vancouver.

“This is our first choice,” said Wombacher, whose team nabbed exclusive negotiating rights to a market that opened up after the Beavers left Portland.

The Portland-Vancouver market is the largest metropolitan area in the country without a professional baseball team.

“Baseball will return to the area,” Wombacher said.

But the team might be in Beaverton, Milwaukie or Portland, he said.

“There isn’t a stadium in the country that didn’t use some type of public financing,” Wombacher said.

The team’s contract in Yakima doesn’t expire until 2015, but the team wants to take advantage of the opening created by the Beavers.

Ideally, the stadium would be ready in June 2012, Thiessen said.

According to Thiessen’s figures, Clark College teams would use the stadium 33 percent of the time, with youth teams using it 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 and accommodate as many as 6,000 people.

Councilors Burkman, Smith, Bart Hansen and Jeanne Stewart said they have a problem with an admissions tax considering the economy and the city’s budgetary woes.

Councilor Jeannie Harris and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said the council should think long-term about the possibility that baseball could greatly enhance the city.

Leavitt said he spoke earlier Monday with a business owner who was thinking of relocating to Vancouver, but said several of his employees live in Vancouver but spend their family free time recreating in Portland.

Leavitt said he mentioned the baseball proposal and the business owner perked up, saying minor league baseball is great entertainment for families.

“I see a huge opportunity, and I think it deserves a serious look,” Leavitt said. “We cannot afford to not seriously consider the opportunity.”

Harris agreed, and said she sees a clear connection between using an entertainment tax to pay for an entertainment venue.

Speakers voice opposition

About 30 people signed up to speak at the city council’s citizen forum later in the meeting, with more than half wishing to speak about the baseball proposal. Not one commented in favor. Speakers included neighborhood representatives, supporters of a Vancouver arts and cultural center and other residents.

Brian Barnes of the Washougal Motocross, whose event would bear the 5 percent tax, said it irritated him listening to Wombacher speak about using public money to pay for the stadium, which would serve as competition to other entertainment venues.

“To have somebody who is not willing to spend their own money, like Washougal (Motocross) has done, we’ve never asked for one thin dime from Clark County or the city of Vancouver,” Barnes said. “I would urge citizens of Clark County and the people of Clark County to vehemently oppose this.”

Vancouver resident Temple Lentz, Leavitt’s former campaign manager, echoed many concerns of speakers, asking if a baseball stadium was the highest or best use of public money. At a time when public services are being cut, a fire station closed, federal grants used to keep cops on the street and the city lacks money to fill all its potholes, she questioned the rationality of raising a tax for a stadium.

She referenced an email Leavitt sent to Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart about the odds of the city council supporting the tax.

“The terms political will and vision were used as qualities to make this happen,” she said. “But giving $20 million of other people’s money to the first guy who comes up and asks for it is not political will or vision.”

Economic study coming

Leavitt said he’ll be eager to read a soon-to-be released economic impact study commissioned by the Columbia River Economic Development Council. The study concludes that the stadium will have a 400 percent return on investment, Thiessen said, but the details haven’t been provided.

A solid study might help quell fears among the council, Leavitt said.

Just what role the city council will play in the baseball proposal remains to be seen.

County commissioners could enact the countywide tax without needing council approval.

Investors, however, will likely want reassurance from the council that the city’s share of admissions tax revenue would be secure.

If the city council enacted its own tax, that would take the revenues away.

An interlocal agreement would likely include a pledge from the city saying that it would commit to paying off a share of the bonds.

If the city enacted its own admissions tax, revenues could go to the city’s general fund and be used for basic services such as public safety.

The city council may also play a role in permitting the stadium, if the proposal gets that far.

A hearings examiner would decide if the stadium should be permitted, but the hearings examiner’s ruling could be appealed to the council.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.