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Proponents insist its not stadium vs. schools

Special player taxes, bonds are among financing ideas

They must be crazy, right?

Build a new baseball stadium in Portland in the middle of the worst recession in a generation? What will it cost: $300 million? $400 million? More?

Sometime this winter, perhaps by March, a Portland group will meet with Major League Baseball officials and tell them why the Montreal Expos should move to Portland. A new stadium will be part of the proposal.

The talk about the Expos breathed new life into the flagging effort to bring a big league team to Portland. The issue touches many hot topics in the Portland community psyche, including civic pride, schools, jobs, taxes and the appropriate role of government in boosting the private sector.

As a result, the effort to bring a team to Portland is running at full steam. A decision about how to pay for a new ballpark could come within the next few weeks as officials from the city, the state and the private sector scramble to put together the city's pitch for baseball officials.

New ballparks have been cropping up in major league cities all over the country in the last decade, including Seattle, Houston, Denver, San Francisco and Phoenix.

Public money has been used in most cases. But private money paid for San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park, though $10 million in public funds went for local road improvements, according to Mark Gardiner, a former partner in Portland Family Entertainment who served as a financing adviser on the San Francisco stadium.

Officials here are talking about issuing bonds to pay for a stadium that could cost $336 million or more Ñ that's not counting a roof, retractable or otherwise, which could add another $70 million to $100 million to the cost. The state, the city and the team's owner would share equally in paying off the bonds.

Sen. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, one of the stadium backers, favors creating a special state income tax bracket only for employees of the team. Taxes on the team payroll Ñ which could hit $80 million a year Ñ most likely would be sufficient to pay the state's share of the bonds, he said.

Deckert plans to introduce his plan to the 2003 Legislature, which opens Monday.

Portland city Commissioner Randy Leonard, also a baseball proponent, said the city could pay its share with tax-increment financing, in which the additional property taxes created by the stadium would be used pay off the bonds.

Other cities have found other payment schemes and employ them in various combinations. Among those are:

• Bonds backed by a sales tax increase. Phoenix used a small bump, less than 1 percent, in the metro area sales tax, to pay off the $238 million in bonds issued to build Bank One Ballpark. This option, of course, isn't available in Oregon.

• Lottery. In 1995, the Washington Legislature, buoyed by the Seattle Mariners' first pennant run, approved special scratch-off lottery tickets to pay construction bonds. The tickets, utilizing various sports themes, contributed $3.7 million to the bonds in the fiscal year ending June 30.

• License plates. Washington also authorized special license plates for bond payments. Specialized plates haven't been an effective way to raise money in Oregon.

• Tourist taxes. Seattle imposed food and beverage taxes in King County to pay off the bonds. Similarly, the expansion of the Oregon Convention Center is being paid for with car-rental and hotel-motel taxes.

In 2001, Deckert's stadium-bonding plan passed the House and had enough votes to pass the Senate but was blocked by Sen. Lenn Hannon, R-Ashland, the co-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Hannon considers the income tax plan 'a gimmick' and will fight it again this year.

'I'm not going to spend one public dime to do it,' Hannon said. 'Education, human services and public safety take precedence over baseball. We've got a sick economy in this state, and if baseball has our highest priority, we're in a lot worse shape than I thought.'

Leonard said the plan won't work unless public officials can explain to the public how the financing makes sense even while school funds are being cut.

'These are legitimate concerns,' Leonard said. 'How can we talk about building a stadium when we can't fund schools?

'The revenue generated by the team and the tickets sales will pay the bonds off. And in the long run, a stadium would generate more property taxes for schools from new development.'

Contact Don Hamilton atThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..