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Price Tag of New Stadium Threatens to Derail Deal

City Hall: Developer wants Ventura to put up $18.7 million for a minor league venue. Council will decide next week whether to keep negotiating.

September 21, 1996|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — A majority of City Council members balked Friday at paying the $18.7-million price tag developers have put on the table for a baseball stadium, but most stopped short of saying they were ready to kill the plan.

Under a plan presented to the council, developer John Hofer will ask the city to foot the entire bill for construction of a new minor league stadium, and then cede all operation and management rights to him for the next 20 years.

In return, Hofer would donate his land, a 20-acre celery field south of the Ventura Freeway and next to the Ventura Auto Mall. He would also pay the city $300,000 a year to lease the stadium, though after five years his rent would increase to $330,000.

The new proposal comes after three months of secret negotiations between Hofer and an ad hoc committee of councilmen: Ray Di Guilio, Gary Tuttle and Jim Friedman.

Before the process began, Hofer offered three options, including one in which he would contribute $6.4 million toward the project and the city would pay $10 million and loan him $5 million.

That plan didn't specify who would pay for what. But the details in the current proposal leave some council members more convinced than ever that putting such a large chunk of city money toward the stadium is not a good idea.

"In the beginning, I had a gut feeling that we shouldn't be doing this," said Tuttle. "But now I know that we should never do it.

"They are asking the city to put up $18.7 million for a stadium that Mr. Hofer owns and runs, and costs us $700,000 a year."

Another member of the negotiating team sees Hofer's bid as the first round in a long process.

"I never once believed for a second that their first offer, or even this offer, is their final offer," Friedman said. "There's still room for movement."

The council members must decide Monday night whether to resume negotiations or drop the idea for a stadium, which could bring with it a Class A ball team to Ventura County.

Two years ago, the California League pledged to deliver a team if the county built a stadium. A collaborative effort among Oxnard, Camarillo and Ventura collapsed early on, and Ventura decided to incorporate the project into a planned sports complex known as Centerplex.

But the proposal has snagged over the cost of the stadium.

None of the five council members contacted Friday believed that the $18.7-million figure would be final.

Councilman Steve Bennett believes that the dollar amount is part of a deliberate effort to raise the expected price so that Hofer's offer in June seems more palatable.

"Hofer is upping the ante so that when the council ends up compromising at $10 million it looks like a deal," said Bennett, the project's most outspoken critic.

Others, like Friedman and Di Guilio, aren't willing to throw in the towel, but have trouble swallowing the $18.7-million figure.

"We're going to have to come up with some pretty creative accounting measures to get that much out of the budget when the council has been asked for money for projects that were $40,000, $50,000, $60,000, and we voted that the budget couldn't support it," Friedman said.

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The city could draw on reserves to finance the stadium but would lose $1 million a year in interest. It would recoup some money from the rent, leaving the city with a net $700,000 deficit a year. Many council members--and residents--feel the money could be better spent.

Hofer, though, says he's offering a great deal. He says that he is willing to assume maintenance costs for the stadium, which is more than any other Southern California city has received in a stadium deal.

And he says the rent he is offering would be one of the highest. Rents at the five other minor league baseball stadiums in Southern California range from $125,000 in Adelanto to $350,000 in Rancho Cucamonga, he says.

Hofer does not suggest that the stadium would ever be profitable. He says only one or two stadiums have been built privately nationwide, and that private developers are reluctant to undertake stadium projects because of the costs.

"The only city with a positive net operating income is Lancaster," says Hofer. "We should build this because it's a benefit to the people who live here."

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A developer in Camarillo has offered to build a stadium with his own money, but Hofer dismisses that proposal, saying taxpayers in Camarillo would pay the money in other ways--such as road improvements, sewer and infrastructure.

Hofer adopts what other supporters say is the key argument for a stadium: It would provide a wholesome form of family entertainment that would enhance the quality of life here.

Debate at Monday's meeting promises to be heated.

"There are four people on the council who have three months of pent-up opinions on this, and three people who have pent-up opinions because they were on the project team," said Friedman.

Already, the release of the new Hofer proposal has unleashed political passions and allegations. It has also divided the council, along perhaps the clearest lines yet, between pro-growth, and no-, or slow-growth.

Bennett charged that the only reason the council is even looking at this proposal is because "City Council members have become dependent on a small group of big players who are their main campaign contributors."

Di Guilio dismisses Bennett's allegations as false, and a "cheap shot."

"This proposal is definitely in line and better than most proposals in Southern California," Di Guilio said. "It still doesn't meet our community needs, but it's a good start."

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