Meeting on Jan. 9 is crunch time for proposal

A decision on a new baseball stadium proposed in Milwaukie's North Industrial Area is on deck.

Milwaukie's City Council plans a special meeting Monday, Jan. 9, to discuss the proposal. Community Development Director Kenny Asher said the council discussion 'is going to be a big production - a decision point for the council.'

A long-anticipated decision has twice been rescheduled. The topic was originally to be taken up Dec. 20, but in November, leaders determined it would be best to wait until the first regular meeting after the holidays.

When City Council appealed TriMet's light-rail bridge application on Dec. 6, packed agendas for the meetings regularly scheduled on Jan. 3 and 17 crowded out baseball discussions.

Asher promises updates on the cost and feasibility of the project, gauging both the level of support from citizens at informal listening lounges and the site feasibility from architects looking at how to orient the stadium. Milwaukie councilors unanimously approved spending $84,500 on the first phase of feasibility studies and are tasked with deciding Jan. 9 whether to spend what could be more than $300,000 through next year's planning process.

How much funding will be needed for a possible second phase starting in February or March is 'kind of a moving target' without invoices from contractors studying programming, design, cost and economic impacts of the multi-use facility, Asher said. If elected officials approve of the project moving forward, they'd also set up a stadium steering committee during the first few months of the year.

Another person wondering whether the project will get the green light is a developer who had, during the summer, expressed interest in locating several hundred thousand square feet of commercial real estate next to the stadium.

However, Fred Bruning, chief executive officer of CenterCal Properties, is deliberately staying in the background until Milwaukie can work out the details of its industrial area's future.

'I didn't want our potential project to be the focus of Milwaukie's deliberations,' Bruning said. 'As Oregon City taught us, it's much better to be in the position of having a city that has general agreement about how a project should work before beginning formal discussion.'

One crucial detail 'should be' coming together behind the scenes, according to Asher, who said that property negotiations with the Oregon Department of Transportation have been going well, and he's planning to report back to council next month.

Chantelle Gamba, chairwoman of Historic Milwaukie Neighborhood District Association, has heard from worried neighbors that the baseball project was being rushed, and this month she submitted a letter to City Council requesting that Milwaukie officials assure the public that a stadium would not push out high-wage industrial jobs, among a list of a half dozen other concerns. In announcing the special meeting last week, Mayor Jeremy Ferguson said that he was hoping to give a topic with 'a lot of reaction' its due attention.

Councilor Greg Chaimov said that the list of concerns from community members needs to be addressed, but noted a competing need to balance 'an appropriate sensitivity' to the fact that 'the more things you want to study, the more you'll have to pay' for the studies. Chaimov and other city leaders seemed to agree during a study session on Nov. 29 that an economic analysis would be the most important component in moving forward with the project.

'If we're going to continue to go down this road we need to know for ourselves and for our residents that this is an intelligent use of money,' Chaimov said. 'That's really where the rubber hits the road - with the good chunk in the middle who say that they'd be for it if it pencils out.'

City officials predicted the economic study itself would be a subject of a lot of scrutiny. Given that private investors have expressed an interest in the project, it would be difficult to predict the exact amounts that taxpayers would be responsible for.

'We can do an economic study in the more abstract,' Asher said. 'I understand the pressure to get to those answers, but those answers are going to be different depending on when we ask those questions.'

If there were to be a public vote to take out a bond for a baseball stadium, Asher estimated it would be in November of 2012 as the earliest.

Councilor Mike Miller agreed that the whole project hinged on finances. His informal discussions with citizens found most in favor of the stadium until they found out that they might have to pay higher taxes to finance the stadium.

'I don't want to make the same mistake with our people,' Miller said in reference to Clark County's decision against a new fee to fund a minor league stadium in Vancouver.

Councilor Dave Hedges expressed his concern that the stadium wouldn't make enough money to cover its operating costs during its first year and worried it would affect the city's day-to-day operations.

'I'd rather spend $300,000 to get all the information I need to make a good decision rather than build three blocks of sidewalks,' Hedges said.

Asher noted that an agreement with the team could cover the maintenance and operation costs.

'It'd be a city facility, and there would be costs, and all of that needs to be worked through,' he said.

Councilor Joe Loomis cited examples of cities that have made a profit on stadiums and encouraged the city to figure out what a developer like Bruning could contribute to the project.

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