Bring on the Bears? Admissions tax hearing set

Details not yet released on new funding proposal for Yakima Bears

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: November 15, 2011, 7:22 PM

 

After weeks of all-quiet-on-the-baseball-front, a proposal to bring the Yakima Bears to Vancouver has been revived by considerably lower construction estimates and a significant pledge of future donations — up to $3.5 million — from the Clark ­College Foundation.

With a new funding proposal in place, Clark County commissioners will have a public hearing on the most significant funding source: a 5 percent admissions tax.

The hearing will be 10 a.m. Nov. 29 at the Clark County Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St.

A draft of the admissions tax ordinance will be available to review on Friday, said Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart.

When asked whether the admissions tax would apply to the Clark County Fair — which Commissioner Marc Boldt said in September might be a deal breaker — Stuart said the details are still being worked out.

Initially, the owners of the Yakima Bears, a Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, said in May they would pay 30 percent of capital costs and pay for ongoing maintenance and operations. The 5 percent admissions tax would be more widely applied — with an exemption for nonprofit organizations — and revenues would fund 70 percent.

Commissioners rejected that proposal.

Stuart suggested in August that the tax would be limited, adding 5 percent to the cost of admission to movie theaters, the Sleep Country Amphitheater, the Clark County Fair and a proposed stadium at Clark College.

Revenues would fund 40 percent of the proposed stadium, which was then estimated to cost $22.7 million.

Stuart’s counterproposal left 30 percent to come from private investors.

For about two months, baseball proponents have been relatively quiet.

On Tuesday, baseball backer Mike Bomar, executive director of the Southwest Washington Contractors’ Association, said initial capital cost estimates were high. A consultation with an architect and a favorable construction-bidding environment have lowered the project to $19.5 million, he said.

The 4,000-seat stadium would be built east of Interstate 5 and west of Fort Vancouver Way at the site of Clark College’s existing field. The new plan calls for construction to begin in 2012 with the Bears playing their 2013 season in Vancouver.

Under the old proposal, the college would lease the land to the Yakima Bears for free in exchange for being able to use the field, and the stadium would be publicly owned after seven years.

Under the new proposal, the college would own the stadium.

Enter the Clark College Foundation.

While officials with the foundation, a registered nonprofit organization that’s the fundraising arm of the college, stressed this summer they would not be committing any of the foundation’s $60 million to help build the stadium, a new arrangement not involving existing funds has been worked out.

Under the proposal, incoming donations for athletic scholarships would be invested in the stadium. In return, the team’s owners would pay 3 percent on the investments to the foundation annually, and that money would be used for athletic scholarships.

As Lisa Gibert, executive director of the foundation, wrote in an email Tuesday: “The Clark College Foundation is not committing any existing funds to the multiuse facility. We have agreed to accept donations on behalf of the multiuse facility (up to $3.5 million) that will in turn provide a revenue source for our athletic scholarships. The revenue source is, in essence, a return on the investment in the stadium and will be paid by the team to the Foundation.

To be clear, the Foundation is not obligated to raise these funds,” Gibert wrote.

Bomar said the rough estimate of capital costs break down as follows: $11.8 million from admissions tax revenues, $3.5 million from the foundation and the balance paid for by the team.

K.L. Wombacher, who co-owns the Yakima Bears with Mike and Laura McMurray and serves as general manager, said Tuesday he could not comment.

The team’s right to negotiate with Vancouver expired Sept. 23, and the league did not extend the negotiating period because the team couldn’t show proof that the proposal was going anywhere.

So no one from the team can comment or attend the public hearing, Wombacher said.

If commissioners do approve the admissions tax, the team can use that to convince minor league baseball that it has a realistic chance at relocating.

League officials will be meeting the first week of December, Wombacher said.

“Obviously this will be a big topic of discussion,” he said.

The Bears play in the Northwest League and would play 38 home games a year.

The rest of the year the stadium would be used by the college or for other public events.

Sparked debate

The idea of using public funds to bring a baseball team to Vancouver has sparked debate among community leaders.

Ginger Metcalf, who retired this year as executive director of Identity Clark County, emailed the Vancouver City Council and the Board of Clark County Commissioners on Sept. 8 supporting a stadium.

Identity Clark County, the Columbia River Economic Development Council and Vancouver’s Downtown Association all support bringing baseball to Vancouver.

Some elected officials, however, are not a sure bet.

If commissioners approve the tax, the Vancouver City Council will have to agree that, for the life of the stadium debt, it will pay a portion of the debt even if a future city council decides to enact a citywide admissions tax for some other purpose. Several councilors have expressed reservations about making such a commitment.

In Metcalf’s email to councilors and commissioners, she wrote that Identity Clark County has been working on a $250,000 regional marketing strategy, “Land Here, Live Here,” to attract business and jobs.

There’s a “glaring absence of family entertainment opportunities that are part of ‘selling’ a family-friendly region,” she wrote.

Metcalf referenced a study commissioned by the CREDC.

The study, done by Paul Dennis and Eric Hovee, found the project would generate $206.5 million over 20 years. That figure should have officials supporting the proposal, Metcalf wrote.

But in addition to city councilors who have expressed doubt about the wisdom of committing public money to baseball, Commissioner Tom Mielke has said he will not support the tax. Stuart will need Boldt’s support.

The Portland metro area became a sought-after market after the Beavers left.

The city of Milwaukie, Ore., has expressed interest in the Bears.

Stephanie Rice: http://www.facebook.com/reporterrice; stephanie.rice@columbian.com.