Fate of effort to bring baseball to county may rest with Boldt

He’s likely to be swing vote between Stuart, Mielke

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Clark County commissioners gave a sneak preview this week of the debate to come on a proposal by the owners of the Class A Yakima Bears to bring the minor league baseball team to Vancouver.

Just as a team’s performance during spring training doesn’t necessarily indicate how their season will go, commissioners could end up in another place after hearing more public input and working out details.

Commissioners have yet to even have a work session on the proposal. They know they will likely be asked to impose a 5 percent countywide admissions tax and issue bonds to cover 70 percent of capital construction costs for a stadium at Clark College.

Based on Wednesday’s discussion, it sounds as though Commissioner Tom Mielke, R-Battle Ground, will vote no, Commissioner Steve Stuart, D-Vancouver, will vote yes and Commissioner Marc Boldt, R-Hockinson, will be in his usual position as swing vote.

Both Stuart and Boldt have said they want to hear the full proposal. Mielke asked why the county’s bothering with the issue.

Revenue, jobs

Stuart has dropped pro-baseball clues, such as bringing up the fact owners are willing to finance 30 percent of capital construction costs — and all maintenance and operations costs — of a $23 million stadium they’d use for 38 games a year.

The rest of the year the 3,500-seat stadium would be used by Clark College teams and be available for community games or events.

Stuart also mentioned that the Yakima Herald-Republic reported the area stands to lose $700,000 in hotel revenues (later corrected by that newspaper to $206,000) if the Bears leave and that construction of the stadium would create 450-500 temporary jobs.

Boldt, notably, did not answer yes or no when Mielke asked whether he’d consider an admissions tax that would apply to the Clark County Fair.

Instead, Boldt, the board’s most vocal supporter of the fair, said that doesn’t have to be decided yet.

Anti-tax stance

Mielke said he’d consider a countywide vote — which has not otherwise been discussed — on the tax and financing, but that’s it.

Mielke demonstrated his anti-tax-increase stance recently when he voted against a 20-cent monthly 911 excise tax increase.

Boldt and Stuart voted yes; without their support 10 emergency dispatchers would have lost their jobs.

Also, the state would have continued to penalize the county for not taxing the maximum rate by withholding $500,000 a year from the state 911 fund.

Even though nobody testified against the 911 tax, Mielke said he didn’t feel he could justify imposing any additional tax burden.

A 5 percent admissions tax would raise a $10 movie ticket to $10.50.

Mielke said that judging by emails he’s received, the public does not support the proposal.

“You get different emails than I do,” Stuart said. “I’ll send you mine.”

“I’m concerned how much energy we are going to put into it,” Mielke said. “How far are we going to go down this road?”

He asked Clark County Administrator Bill Barron which county employees have been researching the idea.

Barron said he and Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Bronson Potter have been working with members of the county’s finance team.

“Why?” asked Mielke.

“I have permission from two commissioners to do this work,” Barron said.

Among the people who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting was Kelly Parker, executive director of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. She encouraged the commissioners to sign an exclusivity contract and proceed with negotiations.

“We are really encouraging the conversation to take place. We want to see the details,” Parker said Thursday.

“We’re all concerned about the tax issue and certainly we are concerned about the neighbors … these neighborhoods are getting hit with a lot,” she said, referring to the Columbia River Crossing.

The stadium would be built east of Interstate 5 and west of Fort Vancouver Way.

Ron Arp, a project adviser for Identity Clark County hired by the Bears to work on the move, said he and Barbara Kerr, spokeswoman for Clark College, were planning to meet Thursday evening with residents of the Shumway neighborhood.

Residents who live near Clark College have expressed concern about traffic and noise.

K.L. Wombacher, general manager and co-owner of the Bears, said Thursday he’s confident the Bears will move to Vancouver.

“The county commissioners and staff are working through the economic and community-building opportunities of this project and we respect that process,” he said. “We are confident they’ll make good decisions.”

Desirable market

Wednesday’s weekly board time marked the first chance commissioners had to talk about the Bears since Wombacher’s May 13 press conference at Clark College.

Commissioners didn’t meet the following week, and Stuart was not at board time last week.

Last week, Barron told Mielke and Boldt that an exclusivity contract with Short Season LLC, the company formed by Wombacher and co-owners Mike and Laura McMurray, would be on Tuesday’s agenda.

Mielke didn’t ask questions, but at Tuesday’s meeting the chairman of the board said he didn’t understand the contract.

Mielke said he wanted to discuss it at the commissioners’ once-a-month evening meeting, so more members of the public could attend.

Stuart and Boldt agreed to set the matter over to June 7.

On Wednesday, Mielke said he still didn’t understand the purpose of the contract, which was written by Potter to protect the county from Short Season LLC playing it against Yakima or any other jurisdiction.

Likewise, the county couldn’t negotiate with any other team.

“Is it like an agreement between us and the Beaver team?” Mielke asked Wednesday.

No, Stuart said. The Beavers left Portland for Tucson, Ariz.

“I guess my surprise was I didn’t know we were looking for a baseball team,” Mielke said.

“We weren’t,” said Stuart, explaining that the Bears approached the county.

For six months prior to the public announcement, local baseball backers met with local elected officials and business owners to gauge support for the team.

Mielke was told again Wednesday that signing the contract does not lock the county into approving the proposal.

Barron explained that Short Season LLC has until July to negotiate a deal with the county. The organization currently has exclusive negotiating rights, granted through the Northwest League, Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball, in the Portland-area market.

The metro area opened up as the largest in the country without a professional baseball team when the Beavers left.

“There’s a lot to cover,” Stuart told Mielke.

For example, the county needs cities to agree that if the county imposes the admissions tax, cities wouldn’t later decide to take those revenues by passing their own admissions tax.

Revenues would be used to pay off construction bonds.

County budget analyst Adriana Prata estimated a 5 percent admissions tax would bring in approximately $965,000 a year.

She included admission for: movies ($650,273 of the revenue); Sleep Country Amphitheater ($86,625); Clark County Fair ($53,069); Washougal Motocross ($50,000); new baseball stadium ($47,500); Mountain View Ice Arena ($12,600); Clark County Events Center at the Fairgrounds (without Clark County Fair exhibits) ($8,000); Vancouver Symphony ($5,805); Vancouver Volcanoes ($1,250); and miscellaneous (swimming pools, billiards, downtown concerts, winery events, nightclubs, etc) ($50,000).

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