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Despite lingering doubts, City Council signs onto the stadium

There was little doubt going into Monday night’s City Council meeting what would be the ultimate fate of the proposed Missoula Osprey minor league baseball stadium. With a nearly unanimous vote for the use-and-development agreement all but assured on the newly reshaped City Council—only Ward Three Councilmember Lou Ann Crowley held out as the sole vote of dissent—the stadium effectively cleared the last major administrative hurdle and now moves on to the equally daunting task of raising nearly $8 million in private investments to see the 3,500-seat stadium through its completion.

Despite the more than two-thirds majority vote which was necessary to approve the agreements, longtime critics of the project spoke their peace before casting votes in favor of the stadium, committing the city to contributing up to $1 million toward the project.

“I’ve personally been very critical of the process and the document before us, and for a good reason, I think,” said Ward One Councilmember Dave Harmon, who invested a considerable amount of his time working with neighbors of the Champion mill site to draft an agreement that will mitigate the stadium’s impacts. “Unlike the other projects with high returns, the return on this investment is very low.”

Still, Harmon recognized that selection of the former Champion mill site on the south bank of the Clark Fork River is a superior choice to one located at the airport. He also acknowledged that the agreement addresses most of his concerns, chief among them, that the city will not be left “holding the bag” for completion costs if Play Ball Missoula cannot raise sufficient funds, and that the impacts on the neighborhood have been—and will continue to be—addressed.

“The question is not whether there will be a impact, but whether or not we can justify the impact on this one neighborhood for the benefit of many others,” Harmon said. “I sincerely believe that the impact will not be as serious as some people think. Do I know for sure? Certainly not. That’s why it’s been a really difficult decision for me.”

As Ward Two Councilmember Jim McGrath pointed out, it is the very nature of stadium projects of this kind that leaves the city exposed. For one, there is the risk of a half-built stadium, which presents the most expensive worst-case scenario.

“If things go poorly far enough down the road, the pressure will be tremendous for the city taxpayers to finish the stadium,” said McGrath. “The alternative is not either free or cheap, which is to go back to square one.”

The second risk is the city’s long-term exposure, which would exist even if the stadium received no public financing at all. As McGrath noted, there is always the chance that Play Ball Missoula will come back and ask for more money. “We will remain, after stepping forward into this, permanently exposed to a sort of … self-extortion,” he said, not as criticism of Play Ball Missoula or the Osprey organization, but rather as a reflection on the checkered history of other municipal stadium projects across the country.

“Jack Reidy probably won’t be around to see it, and I hope I’m not around to see it, but I’m really certain that it will take place. And I’m concerned about that,” McGrath said. “However, I think the agreement that we have today protects us about as well as we can expect out of a development agreement of this sort.”

The strongest criticism to the as-yet-unnamed stadium came from Crowley, who was dismayed that the city has not only “turn[ed] our backs on all the other possibilities that could have been on that piece of riverfront,” but that it has also surrendered to the highest bidder the right to name the stadium. (According to Crowley, the price tag on the new stadium name is $1,250,000.)

“Now the city’s in the baseball business, we have skirted the process of bringing things through the MRA [Missoula Redevelopment Agency], and we are in defiance of the will of the people,” said Crowley, referring to two previous votes in 1982 and 1991, in which voters rejected minor league stadium proposals.

But as Mayor Mike Kadas pointed out, this project is significantly different from its predecessors, in that past proposals required the city to pony up most or all of the money. The current plan can use up to $1 million of city funds to leverage another $6-7 million in private investments to build a civic facility that will be owned entirely by the people of Missoula.

“We’ll be putting up about 13 percent of the costs of this facility,” said Kadas. “To me, that a good use of these funds. That’s good leveraging.

“This project … is a recognition of this council and this community’s effort to try to refocus itself into a walkable and livable community,” Kadas added. “Unless we’re able to do things like this, and create places for kids and families to come to that they want to, and where they can get to, then we will fail in that broader goal.”

The stadium project will need at least $3 million pledged by June to move forward with construction.

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