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Adelanto's baseball dream turns into a $1-a-year nightmare

Adelanto's baseball dream turns into a $1-a-year nightmare
Ben Hemmen, general manager of the High Desert Mavericks minor league baseball club, looks out over the field in Adelanto. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

All across America, cities have fought to keep their pro baseball teams, building stadiums and providing other sweet incentives in the belief that it will be good for the local economy.

Then there is Adelanto, a struggling city that has been trying to toss out the High Desert Mavericks — at the beginning of the baseball season no less.

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City officials say the minor-league team has become a heavy burden on the San Bernardino County town of 31,000, which has welcomed prisons and, more recently, medical marijuana growers to avoid financial ruin.

The Mavericks will play their season opener Thursday at city-owned Heritage Field, which they have leased for $1 a year since 2012, with the city paying for utilities and some maintenance.

The City Council recently decided that the agreement, approved by a previous council, is not only a bad deal but constitutes an illegal gift of public funds and is not allowed under the state Constitution. The council declared the contract null and moved to evict the team.

Among the aging housing tracts, the prisons and the vast stretches of desolate desert, the ballpark is a rare place for entertainment.

"It kind of reminds me of the Field of Dreams," fan Louie Holme said. "There's nothing around it."

But as a new season dawns, whatever bucolic charm the game may offer fans is being obscured by the increasingly heated off-the-field battle.

A flier urging residents to protest the lease on opening day is being circulated. Team officials have accused the city of damaging the field and the mayor of locking the team out of a building it uses at the stadium.

On Monday, a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge granted the team's request for a preliminary injunction to stop the city from interfering with its use of the stadium while the dispute is resolved. The judge also granted its request to force the city into arbitration.

The city has vowed to keep up the fight. In a statement last month, Mayor Richard Kerr said the city's financial situation is dire.

"Adelanto declared a fiscal crisis in 2013 and is still not in a position to continue to assume financial responsibility to pay for water, gas, electricity, landscaping and maintenance for the stadium the next seven months to accommodate the team's schedule," he said.

Fans who come to the ballpark from Adelanto and surrounding High Desert towns like Victorville and Apple Valley say the city can't afford to lose the Mavericks, who play in the class-A California League, a stopping point for many young players hoping to reach the majors.

The team, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers, has drawn an average of about 110,000 fans annually in recent years, according to the league.

The city "is trying to state that they serve no public purpose," said Holme, 32, who lives in Victorville. "They do. It brings families together."

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He said Heritage Field is one of the few places that keeps his family from traveling down the long, winding Cajon Pass into Rancho Cucamonga or Los Angeles just to find things to do.

Inez Johnson, 59, who frequently takes her grandchildren to games, agreed.

"We got to find things for them to do besides going to the mall," she said.

Still, not everyone thinks keeping the team is worth the cost.

Thomas Gerling, who works at one of Adelanto's prisons, said he occasionally attends games with his family.

"It'll be kind of sad if they go," he said. "At the same time, [the city] is completely broke out here. They just don't have enough tax dollars coming in."

In recent years, Adelanto has turned to prisons to fill its coffers and create jobs — it's home to a county jail, a privately run prison that houses state inmates and one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country.

But its budget woes have continued. Officials last year said auditors had expressed concern over the city's ability to remain viable if its deficits continue.

Late last year, the council voted to allow medical marijuana cultivation in hopes of bringing in more money.

The city built the stadium in 1991, during better times, for $6.5 million. In 2010, a new owner, Main Street California, bought the team and in 2012 renegotiated the lease.

The city "was desperate to keep the team from moving to another city," team lawyers wrote in court filings.

City officials have estimated that the fair rental value of the stadium is $1,200 to $3,500 a game, based on what others in the 10-team California League pay.

They also say the city since 2012 has paid about $2 million in obligations related to the agreement. Team officials say they've had to spend large amounts on improvements the city was responsible for.

Under the Mavericks' contract, the lease can be extended annually by the team through 2018.

Dave Heller, managing partner of Main Street California, said the team provides services to the town beyond rent, including improving the quality of life and bringing jobs and visitors.

The $1 rent is also justified by the fact that the stadium is in a very small city, he said.

Before renegotiating the lease, the city was paying about $150,000 a year to maintain the field while the team paid about $110,000 in rent, he said.

The team accepted responsibility for the field in exchange for lower rent, he said.

City officials declined interview requests. City spokesman Michael Stevens issued a statement saying that "it took a new city attorney doing tenacious research to discover that the [agreement] is tantamount to an illegal gift of public funds."

Their case relies on a provision in the state Constitution that makes it illegal for government bodies to "make any gift or authorize the making of any gift, of any public money or thing of value to" individuals, corporations and others.

Michael Colantuono, a municipal law expert and city attorney for Auburn and Grass Valley, said determining whether the contract can be considered an illegal gift "depends on whether the city is getting fair consideration for what it's giving up."

That determination, he said, generally depends on the City Council.

The case in Adelanto is unusual because one council agreed to the lease while another decided it was illegal.

Gary R. Roberts, a sports law expert and president of Bradley University in Illinois, said teams that pay little rent for city-owned facilities are common around the country.

City officials often justify the deals by arguing that the teams generate other economic activity in town, he said.

"Over the years I've heard of examples where public entities are unhappy with the deal they reach," he said. "They go back and say, 'We want to renegotiate, and we want to give you less.' That's an issue of public policy and contract law; it's not a constitutional issue of whether it's an illegal gift."

Roberts added: "I've never heard that one before."

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