Developers Unveil Plans for Ballpark

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Developers unrolled big plans Wednesday for a baseball stadium and sports complex to help boost the Ventura Auto Center but said they would need up to $45 million in public funds to pull it off.

While two members of the City Council already are throwing their support behind the $100-million ballpark and swimming complex, others are openly skeptical whether the city can afford such a luxury.

The ambitious blueprints include designs for the long-planned baseball stadium as well as an aquatic center, hockey rink, sports car hall of fame, retail center and a larger and more accessible auto mall.

Dubbed the Centerplex, promoters say the attraction would give the city a national identity and draw thousands of swimmers and auto-racing and baseball fans throughout the year. Minor league baseball officials have promised to deliver a team if a stadium is built.

"We lost opportunities in the past," said Ray DiGuilio, a college administrator and former baseball coach who helped pitch the plan to about 100 Ventura business leaders.

"We need to break the lost-opportunity syndrome that has plagued this city the last couple of years," DiGuilio said.

The sprawling complex was designed to spark the struggling Ventura Auto Mall, the city's largest sales-tax generator. The auto mall's revenue has dropped dramatically in recent years.

"This is not just someone's dream to fund a ballpark," said Ken Schmitz, an accountant hired by Centerplex partner John Hofer. "The primary goal is to protect the auto center."

Hofer said he will ask the City Council for an agreement as soon as next month.

"The financial numbers are being reviewed right now," Hofer said. "But we hope to have that [agreement] in front of the City Council in the first couple weeks of July."

Coming up with the public dollars, however, could get sticky.

Developers said they need a deal such as the one agreed to last month by the City Council and owners of the Buenaventura Plaza mall--an agreement that gives mall owners about $25 million in sales tax rebates, waivers and deferrals.

The Centerplex would cost at least $100 million, with about $55 million in private money and $45 million in public funding, developers said. Of that $45 million, about $25 million in taxpayer dollars would come from the city of Ventura, according to preliminary proposals.

That financial commitment concerns city officials and some council members.

"The two big questions for us are whether we can come up with the funding on the city's side and whether all the components are market feasible," said Terry Adelman, Ventura's director of management resources.

Councilman Gregory L. Carson said huge developments may be relying too heavily on city support for their projects.

"I don't think the city should be the lead agency on a capital-improvement project," Carson said. "It's been proven that the private sector can do a more efficient job."

Carson said he would be willing to discuss a tax-sharing agreement if it meant little or no city money up front.

But Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures, the only council member to attend the morning presentation, told the crowd of about 100 that she and Councilman Jack Tingstrom have championed the stadium proposal for months.

"It looks better each time you roll it out," Measures said. "You need to pick up the phone and lobby the other five of us."

Mayor Tom Buford said the Centerplex must compete with a series of projects that rely on public funds, including plans for a giant Kmart, a marine complex and a regional convention center.

"The auto dealers are a major source of retail sales tax revenue and we're going to try to do whatever we can to make that as healthy an operation as possible," Buford said. "But I'm not prepared at this point to go on record supporting this project as opposed to a number of others before the city."

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