Hillsboro officials avoided a strike-out in baseball deal to bring new team to town

During the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Single-A baseball stadium, much was made of the Hillsboro way of doing TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey stands near shovels with baseball bat handles made by Parks & Recreation Department workers for the stadium groundbreaking ceremony.

Baseball representatives marveled that Hillsboro officials could wrap up negotiations to move the former Yakima Bears to town in a mere nine months.

“The leaders of this community have an unparalleled ability to make things happen. Most negotiations like these take 18 months,” said Bob Richmond, president of the Northwest League sanctioning organization.

“I don’t know how you did it,” said Mike Bell, director of player development for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the parent team.

The sense of wonderment is understandable. Hillsboro’s success followed the failure of four other cities in the region to keep or land a professional baseball team. Portland lost the Triple-A Beavers and Beaverton failed to acquire them. Vancouver and Milwaukie then tried but failed to come up with their own minor league teams.

Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey explained the success as simply how the city gets things done.

“In typical Hillsboro fashion, we win. We get ahead of that train,” Willey said at the Sept. 22 groundbreaking in the Gordon Faber Recreational Complex.

Willey is right that he and the rest of the City Council focused on moving the Yakima Bears to town. They supported negotiations by quickly agreeing to build a new 4,500-seat stadium that will be one of the finest minor league ballparks in the county.

But Hillsboro also had a number of built-in advantages over Portland, Beaverton, Vancouver and Milwaukie. They include ownership of the land for the stadium, which Beaverton and Milwaukie did not have. They also include a lack of public opposition to the project, which sank two efforts by Portland to build a new baseball stadium.

And the Hillsboro council was willing to sell bonds to help finance the approximately $15 million stadium without a public vote, something Clark County and Milwaukie would not do. The council made the decision, even though some level of general fund support will be required until the bonds are retired.

In the end, Hillsboro’s way of doing business might best be described as the city’s willingness to leverage its advantages to achieve its goals, regardless of the risks.

Portland stumbles

Although it looked like Hillsboro moved remarkably quickly to acquire the Yakima Bears, some city officials had thought about bringing a professional baseball team to town for several years, says Steve Greagor, who led the negotiation with the Yakima Bears as director of Parks & Recreation Department. Now the interim assistant city manager, Greagor remembers that a different team inquired about moving to Hillsboro a few years ago. Although nothing came of it, the contact prompted discussion within the department about what it would take to bring professional baseball to Hillsboro.

Then, around the time Portland was struggling to keep the Beavers, another team contacted the department about moving to Hillsboro. Although nothing came of that inquiry either, it prompted Greagor to raise the issue with higher-placed city administrators, sparking discussions that involved members of the council.

Then Portland lost the Beavers after it could not settle on a site for a new stadium to replace the team’s home at the former Civic Stadium, which was being remodeled for the Timbers professional soccer TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - A city backhoe took a bite out of the former softball field at the ceremony.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams originally proposed building the stadium in the Rose Quarter where the aging Veterans Memorial Coliseum now stands. Businessman Merritt Paulson, who owned both the Timbers and Beavers at the time, agreed to help finance the construction. A majority of the City Council even approved the plan. But then a group of architects and historic preservationists formed to save the coliseum from the wrecking ball and Adams changed his mind.

Commissioner Randy Leonard then began a hurried search for alternative locations. His first choice was Lents Park in outer Southeast Portland. It was already home to an amateur baseball stadium in need of repair. Paulson initially agreed to help build a new stadium for the Beavers there but changed his mind after nearby residents opposed the idea at a public meeting. They complained it would bring congestion and crime to their neighborhood.

That’s when Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle proposed building a stadium for the Beavers near the city’s transit hub served by the westside MAX line. The city owned land there in a lagging urban renewal area. It was not large enough for a Triple-A stadium, however, and a family that owned a small office building and strip mall on adjoined property balked at selling their property to the city for the project. The idea collapsed when negotiations with the property owners proved unsuccessful.

The Beavers then moved to Tucson.

In May 2011, plans were announced to move the Yakima Bears to a new stadium to be built at Clark College, a community college in Vancouver. It included a proposal to build a $23 million, 3,500-seat stadium in time for the opening of the 2012 season.

Originally, Yakima team owners talked about paying as much as 30 percent of the cost, but that idea was quickly vetoed by the Northwest League. Clark County officials then rejected a financing package for the stadium and the deal fell through.

Milwaukie deal dies

The Yakima owners approached Hillsboro officials about relocating there and found a lot of interest. Several months of informal discussions followed, both with the team owners and the Northwest League, which had to approval the deal.

At about the same time, Milwaukie city leaders began talking about attracting a minor league baseball team. A proposal included building a stadium along the coming Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line.

Originally, Milwaukie officials talked about landing a Northwest League team. Then they considered a team with the West Coast League, which is comprised of promising college players. The city was so serious that it retained Portland sports attorneys to help with the negotiations.

Hillsboro continued moving forward on the deal involving the Yakima team, however. After agreeing on a framework for negotiations, the council authorized Greagor to undertake them. The city retained out-of-town sports attorneys to assist in the negotiations because Milwaukie had already retained the local ones.

Details were hammered out between April 6 and July 5. The council approved a 20-year contact with the team at a special meeting on June 26. It included the team paying $150,000 a year in rent with 3 percent annual increases and a $1 ticket surcharge.

Major League Baseball approved the move on Aug. 21.

That was the same day Milwaukie Councilor Dave Hedges declared his city’s efforts to land a baseball team “dead.” The council had been facing an Aug. 23 deadline to place a bond measure for its stadium on the 2012 November General Election ballot. The deal fell through when the council could not come up with the votes for it.

The Hillsboro council did not face that challenge. It agreed to issue bonds for the stadium backed by the full faith and credit of the city on Sept. 18. The agreement included using $3.4 million generated by a property sale, reducing the amount to be financed to $11.8 million.

The team’s contributions and other revenue sources will never completely cover the annual bond payments, currently estimated at $1.4 million, however.

According to Willey, Hillsboro’s can make the payments because its economy is the best in the region and it has healthy financial reserves.

A local rivalry

At the groundbreaking, Willey said the deal was justified because baseball will provide family-friendly fun for Hillsboro residents who want to stay home and create jobs that will help the economy. The stadium will also be used for school and league football, soccer and lacrosse games. Its artificial turf will allow year-round play, something that only happens in Hillsboro Stadium in the recreation complex.

Construction of the stadium is expected to take around nine months, allowing it to be completed in early June 2013 in time for the start of the next Single-A baseball season. The team is scheduled to play 38 games at home and spark a rivalry with the Volcanoes near Salem.

“There are only 150 baseball franchises,” Richmond said at the groundbreaking. “You deserve one.”

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