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No field of dreams for Clark County

County commissioners vote down funding proposal for multi-use stadium at

By Kevin Dowdell & Nick Parton
On December 6, 2011

For video of the meeting:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p11b2hhezmc&feature=youtu.be

 

The Vancouver Bears were not meant to be.

Following two hours of citizen comments at a public hearing Nov. 29, the Board of Clark County Commissioners voted 2-1 to reject an ordinance that would have levied a 5 percent admissions tax countywide. The tax was geared toward helping finance a multi-use stadium at Clark College, and was projected to generate an estimated $35.9 million over 25 years.

The stadium was intended to become the new home of the Yakima Bears, the single-A affiliate of Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks. According to a presentation by Clark County Senior Policy Analyst Axel Swanson, the stadium would have been used by the team 13 percent of the year, with approximately one-third of the year available for Clark athletics. Clark College would have owned the stadium outright.

Without the projected $11.8 million the tax would have raised, the $19.5 million project lacks the majority of its funding.

"I think there's a lot of unanswered questions," Commissioner Marc Boldt said before voting no on the proposal. "I've heard the saying that ‘If you have principles, there are times in your life where you wish you wouldn't have them principles,' and this might be one of them."

With Commissioner Steve Stuart solidly in support of the tax and Commissioner Tom Mielke averse to passing an admissions tax without a public vote, Boldt proved to be the swing vote.

Boldt expressed reservations on the timing of the ordinance, a lack of Vancouver City Council support for the proposal and issues regarding the appropriateness of taxing movie theaters, golf courses and amphitheaters to pay for a stadium.

"The main obstacle was ‘Either I play golf, or I buy a movie ticket,'" he said in an interview with Independent staffers. "How does that translate to baseball?"

Boldt's position was made clear at the hearing when he said, "Our state flat-out stinks on how we invest in anything."

Several citizens held similar reservations.

"I very much believe in taxing for public good," said Temple Lentz, a Vancouver resident. "However, If we're not funding the other things that are important - if our roads are crumbling, if people are looking for work - let's spend that money on something that actually has a long-term, sustainable benefit."

The vote on the ordinance was held one week prior to Tuesday's Minor League Baseball winter meetings in Dallas, Tex. With a no vote, the team's owners - Short Season LLC - are left without a plan to move the team to Vancouver.

"As far as I'm concerned, there was a lack of leadership by a lot of people in a lot of areas," Clark College Trustee Royce Pollard said at a Nov. 30 board meeting. He added that there are "people who are more concerned about the political future for them rather than the future of our community."

In an interview with Independent staffers, Boldt denied that his vote on the proposal was swayed by his desire to run for reelection next year and that the commissioners feel that, "baseball is still really on the table."

Pollard added that the Commissioners' decision could leave Vancouver without a professional baseball team for the foreseeable future.

"There are people who are saying that we'll get another chance; folks, not in my lifetime. Not in yours. There will be no more chances," said Pollard.

President Bob Knight sent out a college-wide email shortly after the vote. The email echoed Pollard's statements that the death of the ordinance meant a multi-use facility will not be built at Clark College.

Knight said in an interview following the Nov. 30 Board of Trustees meeting that, "The folks who were arguing that this is a huge sacrifice - 50 cents on a movie ticket - are the same ones that are buying a $5 barrel of popcorn when they walk into the movie theater," later adding that, "Their argument didn't hold any water."

The Clark College Foundation was set to collect $3.5 million in donations to support the project. However, the foundation did not factor into the Bears' initial 70-30 public-private funding proposal that the board rejected in August, nor was it included in Commissioner Stuart's counterproposal of a 30-40-30 split, in which the public portion was reduced to 40 percent and private investors would provide 30 percent. It was not until some weeks after the commissioners postponed the open forum that the foundation came forth with a figure of $3.5 million from private donors to be invested into the project.

"What we were trying to do was marry the fact that we wanted to have a scholarship program on behalf of athletes, and this was going to be a mechanism for us to do that," Clark College Foundation President and CEO Lisa Gibert said.

Gibert explained that contributing money in this way is in line with how the foundation operates.

"We actually take in contributions and invest those contributions and utilize the returns on those contributions to run the programs," she said. "So that facility is actually in essence an investment - just like any other investment we might do."

The final proposal would have seen the foundation netting a 3 percent return from the Bears on the $3.5 million investment.

She reiterated that the money would not have come from existing donations, but from donors contributing specifically for the stadium project.

The Nov. 29 hearing played host to 41 citizen speakers on the ordinance, 21 of whom spoke in favor of the proposal. Supporters included a handful of families with young children, along with members of area business associations such as the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and the Vancouver Downtown Association.

Opponents of the ordinance included citizens expressing concern over the hardship the admissions tax would place upon middle-class workers and families, along with those skeptical of the idea that taxing moviegoers in an age of online and rental offerings would actually yield the expected revenue.

"People are investing in big home-entertainment centers," said county resident Barbara Ford. "Most of my friends have Netflix and hardly ever go to the show any longer." She called into question the viability of relying upon tax revenue from movie ticket sales, saying, "I believe that that is going to be a resource that we cannot depend on in maybe 12, 14 years."

In a Nov. 29 interview with The Columbian, Bears' general manager K.L. Wombacher said he is hopeful the team will continue to play in Yakima.

"We've maintained that we've never even had a foot out the door," he said. "We like it here and want to be here long-term, we just haven't seen the commitment."

Wombacher, who co-owns the team with Mike and Laura McMurray, declined comment for this story. The McMurrays also declined to offer comment.

Mielke ended the hearing - and perhaps the hope of bringing a multi-use stadium to the region - with comments on the feasibility of the project.

"I don't think it's a question of whether or not we like baseball, or that we wouldn't appreciate the opportunity to go to a baseball game," he said. "We're talking about building a multi-functioning coliseum - stadium - at a very, very tough time."


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