Bears’ owners sweeten the pot

They offer to get financing to build, own, operate stadium

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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'Letter of intent' outlines baseball plan

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The owners of the Yakima Bears would privately secure financing to build, own and operate a stadium at Clark College under a draft proposal submitted Wednesday to Clark County.

In exchange, county commissioners would approve a 5 percent admissions tax and revenues would go into a facility fund that would be used to pay off construction bonds.

The draft “letter of intent” outlines how an agreement could be structured between the county, college and Short Season LLC.

While the owners of the Bears publicly announced plans to move to Vancouver on May 13, the letter of intent is the first written proposal to be submitted to the county.

It reflects what Commissioner Steve Stuart, the biggest baseball supporter on the board, pledged last week, which was that the county would not back the bonds with the general fund.

Instead, the proposal says the county “will have no obligation to make payments beyond funds available in the Facility Fund,” which would be filled with revenues from an entertainment admissions tax.

Initially, owners had proposed a 70-30 public-private split on a $23 million stadium.

Last week, Clark County Deputy Treasurer John Payne said the projected revenues from a countywide admissions tax ($965,000 a year) would not support a 70 percent commitment from the county. Based on a 20-year bond, he estimated the tax revenues could cover approximately 50 percent of the cost.

That means team owners would have to pay more money or find more funding (from selling the 10 luxury boxes at the stadium, sponsors, etc.) or downsize plans for the stadium.

Stuart said Wednesday that commissioners will schedule a work session to discuss details in the proposal.

If commissioners decide to enact the tax, there will be a public hearing.

A work session will also be scheduled for the Vancouver City Council, which will have to vote to turn over revenues from entertainment taxes collected within the city or an equivalent amount from some other source.

Smaller cities will also be consulted, but nearly all of the projected revenue comes from either unincorporated Clark County or the city of Vancouver.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said Wednesday it’s too soon to tell how the council will vote because councilors have not seen a formal proposal.

In an email sent to Stuart on May 3, Leavitt wrote that he thinks a majority of the council will support the tax but won’t support the credit behind bonding.

Mike McMurray, co-owner of the Bears and president of Short Season LLC, issued a statement Wednesday that the letter of intent marks “the first articulation of the project and framework to begin successful negotiations for facility development. It reflects the work of Clark County, Clark College and Short Season over the past 30 days since we announced our pledge to relocate our Single-A franchise to Vancouver pending creation of a multiuse facility.”

McMurray and his wife, Laura, and co-owner K.L. Wombacher have said they’d move to Vancouver with the team.

Short Season LLC currently has exclusive negotiating rights in the Portland metro area, which opened up as the largest metro area in the country without a professional baseball team after the Portland Beavers left for Tucson, Ariz.

The Bears are a Class A team in the Northwest League and an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“We believe this letter also demonstrates to the institution of baseball that we are making substantial progress toward bringing baseball back to the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area as quickly as the local process can allow,” McMurray wrote.

The proposed time line calls for county commissioners to adopt the tax in July or August and Short Season LLC to obtain financing in September and construction to begin in October or November.

The 3,500-seat stadium would be built east of Interstate 5 and west of Fort Vancouver Way, on the site of Clark College’s baseball field.

According to the team’s time line, the stadium would be ready for Opening Day next June.

However, the Bears’ lease in Yakima does run through 2015.

“By sharing this draft agreement, we look forward to beginning our discussions with the city of Vancouver authorities, in addition to continuing the work under way with Clark County and Clark College,” McMurray wrote in the statement. “Because the proposed site is in the city of Vancouver, we want to initiate the necessary hearings and reviews required to assure that this project meets the land-use plans for the city and Clark College.”

Under the draft proposal, the city of Vancouver would be the lead agency for environmental review and land-use permits.

According to the proposal, the team would lease the land from Clark College but that rent could be offset by allowing the college to use the multiuse stadium.

The team also would agree to make the facility available for public events (games, concerts, festivals, etc.) for a certain number of days at reduced fees.

The county commissioners have already heard from residents who don’t want the stadium or the admissions tax, which would be paid on movie tickets and events including the Washougal Motocross and the Clark County Fair.

Of the other counties in the state which have an admissions tax, none use it in the manner proposed here.

Kitsap County uses the revenues for social services, for example, and in King County people who go to events at Qwest Field pay the tax, which goes back to the state to pay off Qwest bonds. But moviegoers in unincorporated King County don’t pay an extra 50 cents to pay off Qwest Field.

Kitsap County also excludes its fair or any other event primarily sponsored by the county.

Snohomish County has an admissions tax, but it’s only levied at two venues and revenues go back to support those venues. Grant County charges the tax at The Gorge Amphitheater, and revenues go to the county’s general fund.

Stuart has said he doesn’t mind being a “pioneer” in how the county uses the admissions tax.

In an email he sent to baseball supporter Arch Miller on March 22, Stuart wrote that he’d “like to be able to promote the fee as the ‘last’ piece in the puzzle to get pro baseball here.”

The emails were released this week in response to a public disclosure request.

“Once we have that buy-in, (it) should be relatively simple to move forward,” Stuart wrote.

Stuart was first contacted by Wombacher in January.

“Thanks for the note, and your interest in bringing your club to our area,” Stuart wrote. “I am excited about the prospect, and happy to do anything I can to help make this happen.” He added that “there’s obviously a lot to talk about.”

Stuart said Wednesday that he’s always been supportive of the idea but that doesn’t mean the proposal won’t be thoroughly vetted through a public process.

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