A Tough Call
Maybe he has seen that Kevin Costner film too many times. But when Mayor Jack Tingstrom gazes out at the vast celery field behind the Ventura Auto Center, he sees baseball.
He hears the thwack of a bat at home plate, smells the leather of a first baseman’s glove and sees Little Leaguers crowding the gates of Ventura Stadium to get a glimpse of their favorite minor league pitcher warming up in the bullpen.
“That’s the type of thing we don’t have in this city,” Tingstrom said. “And that’s my vision.”
It has been a decade since Ventura was home to a minor league team, and some city leaders are eager to bring Class-A baseball back.
So eager, in fact, that they will ask the City Council tonight to embrace plans to build an $18.7-million stadium and sports complex known as Centerplex on 22 acres south of the Ventura Freeway.
If the council approves the proposal, the city would form a committee to study how to pay for the municipal stadium. Baseball boosters are aiming for an April 1997 opening.
Consultants hired by the city warn that Centerplex would lose about $100,000 a year in its first four years, and only turn a modest profit in the years after.
Under proposed funding plans, the city would have to dip into reserves to pay for the project or float municipal bonds. Either way, the stadium would cost Ventura taxpayers millions. And that has some city leaders questioning the wisdom of such an investment.
“This is just another addition to the budget . . . that doesn’t balance,” Councilman Gary Tuttle said.
“If we had a council willing to make good rational budget decisions, I would be inclined to support it,” Tuttle said. “This group has not been interested in budget cuts.”
But supporters of the project say that building a 5,000-seat minor league baseball stadium would give Ventura County a much-needed venue for sporting events and concerts. And in the long run, they argue, Ventura’s field of dreams would harvest a profit.
“I don’t think it’s folly,” Tingstrom said. “I think it’s an asset to the city.”
Area Success Stories
To defend their position, Centerplex supporters point to the success of other Southern California communities that have built state-of-the-art baseball stadiums, such as Lake Elsinore, Rancho Cucamonga and Lancaster.
All three cities--whose franchises are part of the 10-team California League--have found growing audiences for the game after spending tens of millions on new facilities.
The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in San Bernardino County drew 330,000 fans to a new stadium in 1993, selling out 90% of the team’s games.
At its first game two years ago, the Lake Elsinore Storm in Riverside County attracted 6,700 people to its new ballpark, which only has 6,200 seats but capacity for 8,000.
And when the Lancaster JetHawks played their first game two months ago in the new Lancaster Municipal Stadium in northern Los Angeles County, 6,600 people were there to cheer the arrival of minor league ball to the Antelope Valley.
“It has been wildly successful,” said Lancaster Redevelopment Manager Stafford Parker. “The first day that [the 4,500-seat stadium] opened, we broke all attendance records. We have been averaging around 5,000 people.”
At just $5 a ticket for a minor league game--or $2.50 to sit on grassy hills beyond the foul lines--it is no surprise that baseball fans disenchanted with the major leagues have lined up at the stadium gates.
But the price of such facilities is often steep for the cities that build them.
Lake Elsinore, for instance, sunk its community of 25,000 residents deeply into debt when it spent $24 million on a new stadium. The construction costs were escalated by a rush to build the ballpark in only eight months.
The Lancaster City Council narrowly approved plans last year for the construction of its $10-million ballpark, with some council members questioning the cost.
The trend to build minor league baseball stadiums in Southern California started six years ago when the desert city of Adelanto in San Bernardino County decided to spend $6.5 million for a 3,800-seat ballpark.
Although that city has paid off its stadium debt, the ongoing maintenance continues while ticket sales have fallen off.
Baseball fever was hot in the first few years after the stadium was built. But now attendance is lagging and city officials are questioning whether they could have brokered a better deal.
“Basically, we are paying the bills,” said David Crandell, Adelanto’s special projects director. “It could have been a better contract, but we wanted it. There should have been some more studies done.”
Such warnings have not fallen on deaf ears in Ventura. City officials hired two consulting firms--one in Berkeley and another in Los Angeles--to study the Centerplex proposal.
The consultants concluded that if Ventura wants to build a stadium as a benefit to the community, it would find a supportive market in the region. But they also warned that the project may never pay for itself.
“If you challenge this project to pay off its construction loan, it won’t happen,” said Dave Wilcox, a consultant for Economic Research Associates of Los Angeles. “Almost all communities that have made decisions to support minor league baseball stadiums have made them on a quality-of-life basis--not as economic engines.”
Based upon the estimated revenue and expense, the city is expected to run a declining deficit during the stadium’s first four years of operation--and those estimates do not include the cost of paying off debt service.
Under the proposal, the city would receive an unheard-of fixed rent of $350,000 from the baseball management company for 70 home games each year.
By its fifth year, it is estimated, the 5,000-seat stadium would generate an additional $499,000 in rental income from other events, such as concerts and festivals, for a total revenue of $799,000. The year-round maintenance of the facility is expected to cost the city $766,000.
Other than baseball, the leading activity expected to generate revenue is concerts. The city’s analysis assumes that the stadium would draw four major concert events in its first year with an average attendance of 8,000 people.
But compared to the county’s only other major outdoor concert venue--the Ventura County Fairgrounds--this scenario seems unlikely.
In the last 13 years, only 22 concerts of the more than 90 that have been held during the Ventura County Fair have drawn audiences of 8,000 or more, fair officials said. And 12 of those concerts were free.
Depending on how the stadium construction is financed, officials say it is unlikely that the revenue would be enough to make a significant dent in the city’s debt.
“Obviously it’s going to take a long time,” said David Kleitsch, Ventura’s economic development director. “It really is going to be a function of the deal.”
If the council agrees to pursue the stadium, a financing deal would be negotiated in the coming months by the subcommittee.
City staff members have pitched three funding options to council members. The first--a bond measure that would raise property taxes--is expected to strike out, because even stadium supporters oppose it.
The second calls for the council to approve the sale of a $15-million certificate of participation, a funding method used by the county to build the Ventura County Government Center and the East County Sheriff’s Station. This plan would require the city to put up $6.4 million in cash reserves.
Under the final option, the city would negotiate a partnership with the Ventura landowner and developer, Hofer Enterprises. The developer would pay $6.4 million in cash toward the project and borrow an additional $5 million from the city. In turn, the city would pay $10 million out of its reserves. With all three plans, the developer would contribute the 22-acre parcel, valued at $5 million.
But critics say even the partnership scenario is unbalanced and relies too heavily on city money.
“The issue is one of risk,” Councilman Steve Bennett said. “Nobody knows if a baseball stadium is going to make a profit or not, and these types of risks ought to be taken by the private sector and not the taxpayers.”
But Councilman Ray Di Guilio--a former baseball coach who helped bring a minor league team, the Ventura Gulls, to Ventura College for a single season in 1986--said he thinks Centerplex can be financially structured in a manner that would reduce the risk.
“I do believe the city has the resources to make this not a liability,” Di Guilio said. He plans to unveil his own financing plan at the meeting.
“The city of Ventura and its community anguish over decisions of this nature,” he said, adding that he believes there is strong community support for a minor league team.
“This has been a sports town for a long time,” he said. “It is a working-class type of community that appreciates people who work hard, and athletics does that.”
At the Bench Warmer, a Ventura sports bar, opinions were split on a recent night among the beer-drinking regulars as to whether the baseball stadium would be a worthwhile investment.
“Bring it,” declared bartender Rick Tracy. “I think people would come. There are a lot of baseball fans here with nothing to do.”
Resident Mark Thomas shook his head in disagreement.
“You can’t keep a library open, let alone build a baseball stadium,” he said.
“If somebody is going to bring a team down here,” added resident Steve Northrup, “why not get them involved? Let’s spread it around a little bit.”
Pursuing a Vision
Mayor Tingstrom thinks he has his finger on the pulse of the city. He has talked to students and seniors about the stadium, and he believes that, if Ventura builds it, baseball fans will come.
“It’s a perfect spot,” he said last week, bumping along a dirt road in his minivan on a direct sprint across the celery field to home plate.
In the back of the van bounced detailed drawings of Ventura Stadium, a suggested name. If the council goes ahead with the plan, Tingstrom said he would like to see a contest to name the team, the stadium, even the mascot.
“It isn’t just a little ballpark,” he said dreamily. “It is something the city could be proud of.”
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Minor League Teams and Stadiums
All five teams in the Southern Division of the California League will have new stadiums by the middle of the 1996 season.
Year Seating capacity Cost Team, location open (fixed) (in millions) High Desert Mavericks, Adelanto 1991 3,800 $6.5 Rancho Cucamonga Quakes 1993 6,500 $11.0 Lake Elsinore Storm 1994 6,200 $24.0 Lancaster JetHawks 1996 4,500 $14.4 San Bernardino Stampede *1996 5,000 $14.0-$15.0 Proposed: Ventura (team to be named) **1997 5,000 $18.7
* San Bernardino’s stadium is under construction and expected to be completed next month. The team was formerly known as the San Bernardino Spirit.
** Ventura officials are aiming at an April 1997 opening to coincide with next year’s California League season.
Sources: Economic Research Associates of Los Angeles, cities of Ventura and Lancaster.
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