Tuesday, June 19, 2007


June 19, 2007

Have bat, will bargain: Sea Dogs mascot Slugger. (photo/Chris Busby) Sea Dogs win clubhouse in extra innings
Team gives up $1M in last-minute pitch

By Chris Busby

The Portland Sea Dogs will get their new clubhouse, but the team had to shave over $1 million from its new 20-year contract with the city to keep playing on publicly owned Hadlock Field. As part of a last-minute pitch to win City Council approval of the clubhouse, the team had also agreed to pay for it, rather than ask the city to borrow money for the project.

Portland Maine Baseball, Inc., the company that owns the minor league franchise, will pay the city an annual rent of $150,000 during the first five full years of the new deal. By the year 2024, the Dogs' lease will be $225,000. The team is taking over maintenance of the field and bearing that cost, too, though the city is giving them nearly $70,000 worth of maintenance equipment and about $75,000 in parking revenues every year.

Still, overall, the city's costs under the new deal decline over the next two decades compared to previous proposals floated by the team.

Portland Maine Baseball (PMB) originally asked city officials to borrow $1.7 million for a new home-team clubhouse under right field – and said the clubhouse deal could make or break the team's affiliation with the Boston Red Sox. [See "Sea Dogs want new clubhouse, or else," March 22, News.]

Several city councilors expressed concern that borrowing for the team's private clubhouse this year would delay funding for public improvement projects like roads, sidewalks and schools. The council has a self-imposed cap that limits bonding for such projects at $10 million per year. Some councilors also voiced objection to the city subsidizing the for-profit enterprise at a time of tight municipal budgets.

In the end, the city scored on both points.

Having realized they lacked the super-majority of seven council votes necessary to pass the bond order, the team dropped that plan and proposed paying for the clubhouse itself last week. But as late as this weekend, the deal on the table before councilors would have required the city to continue to maintain the field for the Dogs and for high school baseball games at Hadlock. Together with other expenses and lease arrangements, the cost to the city over 20 years would have approached $3 million. That's almost $1 million more than taxpayers would have shelled out under the original proposal involving a bond.

The deal approved Monday night will cost the city $1.7 million over 20 years – perhaps coincidentally, the same cost to construct the clubhouse.

Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance said "feedback" from councilors last Friday – when terms of the previous proposal were made public in advance of Monday's council meeting – prompted renegotiations early Monday morning. Councilors received the revised lease proposal just minutes before their special afternoon session, which began at 5 p.m.

Sea Dogs president and general manager Charlie Eshbach conceded to councilors that with Monday's revised deal, PMB had "made a financial commitment far in excess of what we were comfortable with" when the process began in March.

Several members of the public spoke against the latest arrangement, citing the ongoing subsidy, and representatives of several local non-profits that benefit from Sea Dog-related charity work spoke in favor of the latest proposal.

The new lease was unanimously approved.


Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard. He can be reached at editor@thebollard.com.


Briefs
Written and compiled by Chris Busby

June 19, 2007

Skate park hung up again
It’ll be at least another month before the Portland City Council votes on whether to build a new skate park at the Dougherty Field sports complex in Libbytown. On Monday night, councilors sent the matter back to the Health and Human Services Committee, which meets Thursday to consider soil testing results from an alternative site by Back Cove.

The committee was ordered to report back to the council for its July 16 meeting, and to hold a public meeting between neighbors and skate park users in the meantime.

As The Bollard reported last month [see “Skate park scuttlebutt,” May 21, News], skateboarders, freestyle BMX bikers and downtown business owners alike have been frustrated by the lack of progress on the park. The process of selecting a new site began two years ago, and the previous public skate park on Marginal Way was removed this past winter (city officials cite “safety reasons” for its removal), prompting some skaters and bikers to take to the streets, parks and sidewalks, instead.

Some neighbors oppose a new skate park at Dougherty Field, citing concerns about noise and traffic. Several who spoke at Monday night’s meeting pointed out that a conceptual “master plan” for the site, completed over five years ago, does not include plans for a skate park.

“The council is being asked to ignore and trample on” the work that went into that plan, said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Councilor Jim Cohen, another committee member, said he was concerned about the process by which the site came up for a vote last night. Cohen said he was “very disappointed” to learn through the media that a vote on the Dougherty Field location was on Monday’s agenda. His committee has not yet made a recommendation regarding a new park site.

In addition to consideration of the Back Cove site, the council may also weigh the possibility a new elementary school could be built at Dougherty Field. A joint city council/school board committee (called the “3x3 Committee”) is considering possible options to consolidate elementary schools, and Dougherty Field – located adjacent to the school department’s West School Program for students with behavioral and emotional challenges – is among two places being eyed for new construction.

That process, however, is unlikely to be finished by next month.

Despite the delay, the Dougherty Field site appears to have majority support on the council.

The Back Cove site has several major drawbacks, including the fact that, unlike Dougherty Field, where unused and dilapidated tennis courts would make way for a skate park, the coveside location would displace a grassy practice field used by youth and high school soccer teams. There may also be what city Parks & Recreation Department Director Denise Clavette termed “wetlands issues.”


“Elected mayor” dream deferred
Also on Monday, the Portland City Council deferred action on an order to ask voters whether to set up a charter commission – a body that could recommend the reestablishment of a directly elected mayor.

Councilors Dave Marshall and Kevin Donoghue had proposed to begin the commission process this fall, after having earlier failed to win council support to send a variation of the “elected mayor” idea directly to voters in November. [See “The Commish, then the Mayor?,” June 5, News Briefs, below.]

Councilor Ed Suslovic suggested the city first try to change the state law governing such commissions next year, and he ultimately got support from most councilors – including Donoghue and Marshall – to pursue that route, instead. (Councilors Donna Carr, Jill Duson, Cheryl Leeman and Jim Cohen opposed the motion to refer the matter to the council’s Legislative Committee, which Suslovic chairs.)

Among the concerns with the state law Suslovic raised is its stipulation that a charter commission be elected within 90 days of voters approving its creation. Suslovic and others oppose the idea introduced by Marshall and Donoghue to hold a vote on the commission’s formation and its members at the same time. Under that scenario, it’s possible for voters to “elect” charter commissioners while simultaneously rejecting the idea of creating the commission in the first place, as happened a few years ago when a county charter commission was put before the public and voted down.

Suslovic would seek a change in state law to allow municipalities to hold the election for commission members on the next “regular” election day – in June or November – following approval of its creation. He also favors giving cities more flexibility to determine how many commissioners to elect, and whether those commissioners are elected at-large, by all city voters, or by individual council districts.

Councilor Jim Cloutier said he likes the idea of a commission elected the same way voters choose councilors – four are elected at-large and five represent individual districts. Without changes in state law, “we’re going to have a stupid charter commission,” he said.

It would be next spring, at the earliest, before the state took action on any proposed changes to the law. A vote to establish a charter commission would then not likely take place until next November, at the earliest – with, if voters approve it, an election of commission members in June of 2009.

Voters would go to the polls again to weigh in on any changes to city government put forth by the commission. That vote could be at least three years down the road.

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