SAN CLEMENTE : Top-Flight Ballpark Has Strike Against It

As far as the city's softball enthusiasts are concerned, the sports complex at Richard T. Steed Memorial Park looks great.

Before four well-trimmed, lighted diamonds were opened last summer, the city's recreational league players put up with infield rocks and outfield gopher holes at run-down fields that were nonetheless the best San Clemente had to offer.

"Now, I feel like I'm playing in Dodger Stadium," said Edwin Powell, a 34-year-old shortstop in one of several leagues using the facility. "This park is a real gem compared to some of the places we've used."

But when city officials look at the park, located at the edge of the scenic rolling hills of east San Clemente, they see a stack of unpaid bills.

Since the complex opened in July, contractors have been knocking on the doors of City Hall, asking for more than $220,000 they say is owed them for building the park.

And when South Coast Sports Enterprises, the developer/operator of the park, declared bankruptcy Jan. 23, the construction firms found themselves reduced to standing in line for a share of a $55,000 deposit left with the city.

But city officials are holding onto the deposit, saying that the money will be distributed by a bankruptcy judge.

"They will all have to wait for the bankruptcy hearing," which is as yet unscheduled, said City Atty. Jeff Oderman.

In 1985, the city agreed to lease park land for development as a sports park by South Coast Enterprises. The deal--unique in Orange County, city officials say--called for the management group to build the softball complex and operate a year-round league program.

But the project ran into financial trouble, and the city agreed last spring to give the firm a $75,000 rent credit.

A few months later, to the delight of the city's softball players, the complex opened for play.

Within months, however, creditors began contacting the city with complaints over unpaid bills.

When they began filing legal claims against City Hall, the City Council took action in January to void South Coast's lease and take over the park.

The move forced the firm into bankruptcy to protect its almost $900,000 investment in the sports complex.

"We had no choice," said Steve Boehm, one of the firm's principal partners. "The City Council didn't have to do this."

Boehm blamed cost overruns during construction on turnover in city staff over the past five years. The new city officials required more stringent and costly improvements than those outlined in verbal agreements with the previous regime, he said.

But Bruce Wegener, a city recreation director, says the city required no more than what was originally promised by South Coast.

"They said they would build a top-flight quality park," he said. "And we held them to that."

Boehm said a new backer has been found who will settle all claims once he is approved by the firm's limited partners.

Wegener said he hopes the sports firm can get back on track, but added that the city is "capable of stepping in" and operating the park.

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