The Nesting Season 

Osprey caught between first and second-locations, that is

The Missoula Osprey are ready to fight for the Pioneer League championship this summer in a temporary home on Spurgin Road. The club's black, blue and white paraphernalia is everywhere, and baseball fans are practically frothing at the prospect of Missoula's first minor league season since 1960.

The team doesn't have a real home yet, however. The so-called Fish Hawks were lured by local boosters' promises of a state-of-the-art, 3,000-seat ballpark to be open for business by 2000. The question of where they'll ply their trade next year remains unanswered, though-and increasingly complicated.

Play Ball Missoula, the committee of connected local baseball fans that convinced the team to move, originally proposed a ballpark for the disused Champion timber mill site next to the Clark Fork River. A coalition of horrified neighbors immediately protested that the stadium would bring too much traffic and noise to the area.

With the Champion site mired in several other uncertainties as well-for example, Play Ball hasn't secured the rights to key land needed for parking-ballpark backers suggested last week that two softball fields at McCormick Park, just to the east of the empty mill site, could be replaced by their stadium. This alternative stirs up a host of complications of its own. A week after the scheme surfaced, Play Ball Chairman Wey Symmes still isn't prepared to discuss it.

Play Ball members say they want to choose a site by the end of May. Osprey team officials reckon that construction would have to begin in August for a stadium to be open in time for Opening Day, 2000. That means political questions over zoning, land ownership, public urban renewal money and transportation would have to be cleared up rather quickly once a site is actually chosen.

In other words, it's time for people who want a baseball stadium in downtown Missoula to put their rally caps on. (Ditto for those opposed.)

As far as the original proposal goes, Champion has donated a large triangle of land where the ballpark itself would sit. However, the Boise-based Idaho Timber Company controls over 40 acres of the riverside dead zone; the stadium plan calls for some of it to be used as a parking lot. So far, at least, Idaho Timber has refused to "play ball."

Ron Klaphake of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation is the baseball committee's point man on the IT land, and he says that he's been in "continuous contact" with the company. But you sure wouldn't know it to talk to Idaho Timber's Chief Financial Officer Brandt Rudd, who discusses the company's Missoula holdings as though he's barely heard of the stadium plan.

"Well, Ron Klaphake from the Chamber of Commerce or something like that met with me to say that they were kicking the tires on the possibility of a ballpark," Rudd says. "I know that there was a piece needed for parking, but it's really none of our business. I don't know where they're at in their efforts."

Beyond difficulties with Idaho Timber and opposition in the surrounding Southside neighborhood, there are environmental questions about the site as well. The area is the target of an Environmental Protection Agency grant meant to rehabilitate abandoned industrial land.

According to Beth Berlin of the city's Office of Planning and Grants, which is administering the EPA "brown fields" grant, an environmental assessment of the area completed in 1989 revealed low levels of contamination, mostly from petroleum products. Berlin adds, however, that another assessment must be done before anything is built. She says OPG is working to get permission to do a study this spring; given that the area surrounding the Champion property is buried under complex layers of multiple leases, that's taking a while.

Meanwhile, the city is gearing up to rezone the entire area for residential and commercial use, which could dramatically affect the value of parcels like the Idaho Timber land which are currently zoned for industry.

With all this at play on the Champion site, it's no surprise that Play Ball floated the McCormick Park idea. "It's a trial balloon, and it's up there in the air now," Klaphake says.

While the McCormick option is still embryonic, some say it might make an ideal site for the ballpark, given that it's closer to downtown, directly across the river from the future Fox Site shopping center and farther from residential areas. Unfortunately, the softball players who'd be displaced don't agree.

"The Missoula Softball Association has and will have no interest in surrendering the McCormick Park facility," says association president Pat McDonald. "Those humble fields in the shadow of the Orange Street Bridge are the psychological home of Missoula softball."

Another wrinkle in the McCormick scenario is that the land, acquired by the city in the 1930s, is governed by deed restrictions that require it to be used as public park. According to City Attorney Jim Nugent, a public vote is required to transfer ownership of that land. That's the first time a city-wide ballot on the baseball stadium has been mentioned, and such an election would change the politics of the situation completely.

Play Ball representatives have reportedly said that a McCormick Park facility could be given back to the community, perhaps dodging a vote. City Council member Jim McGrath points out, though, that this is another new idea. "City ownership has never been something we've discussed," says McGrath. "Community ownership of the stadium, I think, would only be appropriate if there was some form of community ownership of the team, like how the Green Bay Packers are owned, but that's not what they're proposing."

McGrath adds that all the furor over the two proposed sites amounts to speculation, at least from a bureaucratic point of view, since Play Ball has yet to make any formal requests or proposals to the city.

"There's literally nothing on the table as far as we're concerned," McGrath says. "I'm not opposed to anything, because at this point, there's nothing to oppose."

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