MISSION VIEJO — As Mission Viejo races to beat the clock and bring the Long Beach Riptide minor league baseball team to South County, the road to building a new ballpark for the club at Saddleback College is getting bumpy.
First, the city of Long Beach made overtures to keep the team in the port city last week. Then, the first voices of community opposition were raised against the proposed $5.5-million field to be built by Mission Viejo.
"I don't think [Oakland Raiders President] Al Davis could have made a better deal than this," said Bradley A. Morton, who opposes a preliminary deal between the Riptide and the city. Morton was a candidate in Tuesday's Mission Viejo City Council race.
The deal contains language that would allow the team to escape a proposed 25-year lease with Mission Viejo on the 4,500-seat ballpark by paying $300,000, leaving the city stuck with the $5.5-million field.
"They can walk away for $300,000 and we're out a lot of bucks," Morton said.
The Riptide is unaffiliated with any major league team. They play in the Western Baseball League, a West Coast group of independent teams made up of older players trying to revive careers and young, former high school and college players who were not selected in baseball's draft.
While Mission Viejo has been dealing with Riptide officials for more than three months, Long Beach only recently has begun efforts to keep the ballclub where it is.
Riptide owner Pat Elster, brother of major league shortstop Kevin Elster, characterized Long Beach's initial offer as meager but said that city officials have indicated they will improve the deal at a meeting today.
Another sign that Long Beach is getting serious, Elster continued, is that the city's recreation department is no longer handling negotiations. Assistant City Manager Henry Toaboda will speak for the city.
But both cities say they don't want the negotiations to turn into a Ping-Pong match.
"We're not going to get into a bidding war with Long Beach," Mission Viejo City Manager Dan Joseph said. "We've made our deal with the Riptide. If Long Beach offers them more and the Riptide thinks they've made a better deal with Long Beach, I wouldn't begrudge them that."
However, Long Beach officials say they can't top the Mission Viejo package. It will guarantee the Riptide ticket sales of 1,750 per game for the life of the proposed 25-year lease--or about $400,000 per year based on a $6 average ticket price.
"We certainly couldn't match that," Toaboda said. "We've enjoyed having the Riptide here . . . but we won't be used as a pawn."
What Long Beach has in its favor is time. The Riptide must find a place to play next year and time is short. In fact, it must decide where it will play by Nov. 20 because the league needs time to determine next season's schedule, and the team wants to sell as many tickets as it can in advance.
"This is not a done deal," Joseph warned. "But I'm confident we can get this done before the Riptide's deadline."
Building a new ball field at Saddleback College would also benefit the college team, although college officials are cautious about the prospects.
For the college, the main issue is who would have final say over what events take place at the facility, said Associate Vice Chancellor Kathleen O'Connell Hodge.
But the speed with which the city is moving toward spending millions on a ballpark worries residents like Morton.
"The public hasn't had a chance to discuss this," Morton said.
But Joseph said the city has hired consultants to analyze the project and they have concluded that Mission Viejo should break even on the deal, at worst.
The annual cost to repay the bonds that would be sold to construct the park would be between $400,000 and $600,000, Joseph said.
Mission Viejo would take in $277,000 a year starting next year and then $377,000 annually after the field is built from revenue known as redevelopment tax increment funding, which is derived from property taxes.
While the city has yet to determine the cost of other expenses, such as maintenance and utilities, Joseph said they will be significantly less than $150,000 a year.
And Mission Viejo's share of those expenses should be covered, Joseph said, by the $125,000 from tickets, $73,000 from concessions, and $47,000 for parking the city would receive annually.
Regarding the $300,000 buyout clause, Joseph said it would provide the city with "a fairly good insurance policy" against the team breaking its lease.
The Riptide, which Elster said averaged about 1,800 in attendance last year, should attract more fans in South County.
"I think their attendance is going to increase drastically based on our demographic studies," Joseph said. The studies show a high median income and tremendous interest in sports.
Joseph emphasized that the ballpark could also be used for other events, from concerts to soccer tournaments.
"We're not looking for this to be a gold mine," Joseph said.