As the Missoula City Council this week debates whether to pay off a portion of the debt accumulated while building Ogren Park at Allegiance Field, some say the city's field of dreams is giving them nightmares.
Before unveiling Ogren Park in 2004, the city for decades batted around the prospect of building a stadium suitable for hosting minor-league baseball teams and holding community events. But voters have come out hot and cold, voting both for and against the spending of city funds on construction of a new stadium. Despite two lawsuits and one failed bond measure, the nonprofit Play Ball Missoula, which formed for the express purpose of building a stadium in Missoula, made the project happen. Here's where the whole Cracker Jack thing gets expensive, though. Play Ball is now in the hole $7.3 million. And city leaders are proposing a deal funded in part with taxes to help keep the stadium from being foreclosed.
City coffers have already contributed $2 million toward construction. The council appears poised to pick up an additional $3.55 million of Play Ball debt, covering the tab with $1.55 million from a bond sale and $2 million from a tax pot that's filled by people who own property near the stadium. In exchange, the city will get a baseball stadium and lease payments from the Osprey that will pay down the bond. For their part, bankers who lent toward stadium construction are waiving more than $3 million in loans.
Some are angry that the council seems to be circumventing voter will as reflected by at least one failed bond measure. Missoula resident Linda Frey told council Monday night that forcing citizens to pull out their checkbooks to bail out Play Ball is distinctly un-American. "It seems to me this is caviar, and the Russian variety, too," Frey said. "Just say no."
She's got a point. Not being able to pay the bills and asking taxpayers to cover the difference could be perceived as pick-pocketing. But the stadium is in jeopardy. Foreclosure would mean no more rooting for the home team and no more Willie Nelson warbling "Whiskey River" through the Ogren Park PA system, at least for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, bailout supporters say keeping the stadium on solid economic footing benefits the entire community. And as we think about the last time we sat alongside our beer-swilling neighbors on a Saturday afternoon while rooting for the Osprey, we realize there's probably more than a grain of truth to what now-retired veteran city council member Jack Reidy told the council on Monday night: "There are some things that are more important than money."