Don't look to Clark College, its foundation to help finance Bears baseball stadium

Donors intend most money for school programs, scholarships

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Officials who favor bringing the Class A Yakima Bears to Vancouver but are uneasy with enacting a new countywide admissions tax to help pay for a stadium should probably scratch “Clark College” and “Clark College Foundation” off the list of alternate financing options.

Under a proposal to build a $22.7 million stadium at Clark College, the college would provide the land and parking spaces.

The multi-use stadium would be used by Clark College and community teams, as the Bears would only use it for 38 baseball games a year.

County commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to continue negotiating with Short Season LLC, the owners of the Bears, who have proposed a 70-30 public-private split for capital costs and offered to pay ongoing maintenance and operations costs.

The public’s portion would be an estimated $900,000 a year collected from a 5 percent countywide entertainment admissions tax.

The tax would require operators of venues, including the Sleep Country Amphitheater and movie theaters, to collect the tax and turn it over to the county to use toward paying off construction bonds.

Commissioner Steve Stuart said he would like to hear alternatives to the admissions tax, which has drawn opposition from some members of the public and owners of the potentially affected venues.

In an interview this week, Stuart said that the Clark College Foundation should step up and help pay for an amenity that will benefit the college.

At public meetings, people have asked about the deep pockets of the foundation, a registered nonprofit organization that’s the fundraising arm of the college.

On Friday, Ara Serjoie, vice president of development for the foundation, said the majority of money has been earmarked by donors to go toward specific programs or scholarships.

The foundation is legally and ethically obligated to honor the terms of the donations, he said.

The foundation has approximately $60 million, and $10 million is listed as “unrestricted,” according to the foundation’s website.

Even “unrestricted” money has to be used to fulfill institutional obligations, he said.

He said there’s a myth in the community that the foundation has money to throw around.

The foundation’s board members decide how to spend unrestricted funds, but there are priorities.

Those include scholarships, equipment acquisition and program needs, he said.

The priorities are driven by a number of challenges facing the school, including a double-digit enrollment increase, cuts in state funding and a push to offer more programs in an effort to have a more educated workforce in Southwest Washington.

Carol Curtis has been on the board of the Clark College Foundation since 1994.

“What Ara has said is absolutely true,” she said.

She said if donors came forward and wanted to designate money for a stadium, that would be fine.

But as things stand now, “as far as funding (a stadium), it is not an option,” she said.

As for the school contributing any money to the project, spokeswoman Barbara Kerr said Clark College President Bob Knight has consistently said the college would have no financial participation in the construction, maintenance or security of the facility.

Kerr released an email Knight sent last month to students and faculty.

“I am writing to invite you to share any thoughts, questions or concerns you may have about the proposal to build a multi-purpose sports facility at the college. The proposed facility would be located on the site of our baseball field. It would be the home field not only for a minor league baseball team looking to move from Yakima to Vancouver, but also for our men’s baseball, women’s softball, and men’s and women’s soccer teams,” Knight wrote.

“I want to emphasize that the college did not pursue this opportunity and we are not making any financial contribution. Please also know that the proposed minor league baseball games will take place at times during the summer where there should be little or no impact on student parking,” he wrote.

Knight finished the email by writing, “The proposed facility requires regional support, and those discussions are continuing. If the proposal does not move forward, the college will continue to support our student athletes in baseball, softball and soccer and cheer them on at our existing facilities.”

Vancouver's Downtown Association supportive

On Friday, Vancouver’s Downtown Association became the latest group to support the stadium as a “tremendous community asset” that “would become a wonderful regional draw.”

But at the end of the endorsement, executive director Lee Rafferty wrote, “And, we urge the exhaustion of all other financing tools before relying on the entertainment tax.”

A study commissioned by the Columbia River Economic Development Council found that the entire 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.

Eric Fuller, chairman of the CREDC, announced the group’s support without any mention of concern about the admissions tax.

“After reviewing the findings of this report, CREDC supports the relocation of the Yakima Bears to Vancouver based upon the positive economic impacts and added amenities of a multi-use stadium to our community,” Fuller said in a statement released Wednesday with the study.

When Identity Clark County voted to support the proposal earlier this month, executive director Paul Montague said members encouraged county commissioners to “carefully consider the impact of the project on nonprofit organizations.”

The Vancouver Symphony, for one, has requested to be excluded from the tax.

Stuart has said there’s a good possibility that all nonprofit organizations would be excluded.

The commissioners will have a work session on the financing, 10 a.m. Aug. 24 at the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St.

Short Season LLC has offered to arrange the financing, as commissioners have made it clear that bonds would not be backed by the county’s general fund.

Ron Arp, a spokesman for Short Season LLC, said public and private leaders are exploring other financing options.

The team proposed the admissions tax because it would be on discretionary spending.

The team has a lease in Yakima through 2015 but would like to be playing in a new stadium at Clark College in June.

For that to work, construction would have to start in the fall.

Arp said if the team hadn’t been in a hurry to secure the coveted Portland-area market, its opening offer to the county would have been 15 percent; then, during negotiations, the group would have bumped it up to where it stands now at 30 percent.

Vancouver’s the largest city in the state without an admissions tax.

“It’s one tool that hasn’t been used in 68 years of being available,” Arp said. “We’re open to all ideas. It looks like the admissions tax would work, it’s just a question of whether anything would work better.”

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