When Missoula Played Ball

by William Skink

In a comment from my zine post, Lead Based Saint offered some speculation on when things really started going wrong in Missoula. From the comment:

I think a big turning point in the trajectory came in 2003 when Mayor Kadas broke a tie vote and committed the City to another $1 million ($3 million total?) to finish the baseball stadium. Correct me if I’m wrong, but at the time I believe he was on the board of Play Ball Missoula, which was the group seeking the funds. Once that line was crossed, it’s been a free-for-all.

That comment got me thinking–and reminiscing–about where I was back then, in 2003. I lived in the slant streets and had just graduated from UM. It was a great neighborhood to live in.

I walked and biked with my two dogs down Hickory, to the river trail, all the time. Big Sky’s taproom was right there, so I’d often pick up a growler. I remember watching the old sawmill site slowly transform. And I mean slowly. It seemed like the giant crater shaped out of the earth with steel pilings sticking out sat like that for a long time.

Before the sawmill district was resurrected as a park, lots of condos, and a baseball stadium (with more to come) it was a visual reminder of Missoula’s disappearing past. There were old, decaying structures once active milling timber, but way past their prime they were primarily used by homeless people and teenage graffiti artists.

I get that something was eventually going to be done with this nice piece of real estate next to the river, but how that eventuality happened now seems like a harbinger of things to come.

I went poking around and found an Administration and Finance Committee Report from 2/19/03 that provides some interesting context:

Mayor Kadas stated that he would like to give a background regarding this project. He stated that the project approved originally was going to cost $8 million dollars and of that $8 million the City would contribute $1 million. Since the original approval for this project there have been delays and because the site itself, it is a more expensive site to operate than originally thought, there are costs for taking removing two feet of asphalt and the additional dumping charges and because there are now better architectural and engineering plans there is a more precise cost. The cost has gone from the original $8 million dollars to $11 million dollars. He stated that Play Ball has been able to do under the present decline in the economy and the lawsuits that were filed they have been able to raise $6 million dollars in contributions and pledges, which includes the City’s first $1 million dollars. Mayor Kadas feels that substantial progress has been made under adverse circumstances. He believes that the land in question would not have been donated to the City if it had not been for the connections that were made by Play Ball Missoula with Champion International to convince them they needed to make that contribution and it would be used for a Ball Park if at all possible. He also said that the original offer to the City by Champion International was that the land only be used for a baseball stadium. Mayor Kadas requested the change to allow for any use on the site and Champion eventually agreed to the change. The only reason the City received the land was through Play Ball’s efforts.

About ten years ago my wife and I renovated the house we lived in, not far from where Play Ball was scheming for a baseball stadium. It was an old house, so there were unexpected problems that emerged, resulting in a much bigger bill than we expected. Guess what we did? We paid the fucking bill. I didn’t feel entitled to go to the city and ask for money because our project went over budget.

Going over budget was just the beginning for Play Ball Missoula. In 2011 Mayor Engen and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency had to rescue the stadium project because it was drowning and debt:

The proposal has the MRA making four annual payments of $500,000 to help pay off the debt. That part of the deal and related agreements are headed later this summer to the Missoula City Council.

The city already has put land and $2 million into the ballpark and surrounding infrastructure, so the total municipal investment could be some $4 million, said Mayor John Engen. The stadium is expected to appraise at some $9 million, so he said it represents an enormous return both in finances and community spirit.

The mayor stressed the dollars will come from redevelopment coffers – not property taxes.

“This is not money that can be used to repair potholes, to hire police officers, to feed the hungry or homeless,” Engen said. “It’s redevelopment money. It is statutorily committed to uses just like this one.”

Yeah, since we can’t use all this redevelopment money just laying around, lets throw it at this project and have the city take over maintaining a property that never brought in the revenue to make it viable in the first place. Great idea.

Things got uglier when banker Hal Chase died. Investors had their debts called in and a few refused to pay. Litigation followed.  Then, in 2013, that pesky issue of funding maintenance came up:

Mountain Baseball has paid all its $120,000 annual lease payment for Missoula’s riverfront stadium, but Friends of the Civic Stadium has not paid any money toward maintenance, according to the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

Mountain Baseball owns the Missoula Osprey Pioneer League baseball team, and it’s slated to pay the $120,000 rent on Ogren Park at Allegiance Field for 25 years. The payments will go to pay off $1.55 million in revenue bonds that were part of the city’s controversial contribution to the ballpark.

“They do four payments over the summer because that’s when their revenue is coming in,” MRA Director Ellen Buchanan said this week of Mountain Baseball.

Friends of the Civic Stadium, on the other hand, has not raised any of the $25,000 yearly payments its agreement with the city of Missoula required starting in January 2012, but the group anticipates an upcoming event will bring in funds, Buchanan said. Friends of the Civic Stadium is the nonprofit that formed to raise money for stadium upkeep after Play Ball Missoula went dark.

I wonder how the money for maintenance is raised these days? Does revenue cover expenses at the baseball stadium?

Who cares, the baseball stadium is now just one of many nice amenities enticing investment in the hip, new Sawmill District. How it came to be is down the memory hole, right?

For those who do remember, how Missoula played ball matters because it was a sign of things to come. Thank you, LBS, for sending me on this trip down memory lane.

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About William Skink

I'm a poet and political cynic living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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