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Even Baseball Is Out at Home in Rohnert Park

Minor league team gets the boot as amenities turn to liabilities in the Sonoma County town.

June 09, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

ROHNERT PARK, Calif. — Minor league baseball is going, going, gone from the Sonoma Valley.

Tagged out in a rundown between a budget crisis and local ambition, the Sonoma County Crushers have been retired.

After canceling the team's $1-a-year lease on Rohnert Park Stadium earlier this year, the city is moving rapidly to trade off its humble shrine to America's pastime for a monument to a more modern fixation -- shopping. City officials plan to sell the stadium soon for about $11 million to a developer who hopes to build an upscale mall.

"I guess it's better economic survival versus baseball, and that's what we really have to look at," said Rohnert Park Mayor Armando Flores.

Throughout the state in this year of budgetary woes, cities are not waiting for Sacramento to decide their fates. They are assuming the worst, and making decisions that, in the end, may have more effect on the lives of many average Californians than the grander policies being debated in the state capital.

By law, the Legislature has until Sunday to approve a spending plan that closes the state's $38-billion budget gap. Any plan lawmakers approve will almost certainly include reductions in government services.

Rohnert Park, population 42,500, is like many small and medium-sized cities in California that grew fast when times were fat. From its founding in 1962, the city bargained with developers to donate land and fees for parks, schools, churches, swimming pools and even a performing arts center. No one seemed to worry that the bill to keep all those amenities going kept getting higher.

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'Clear Signals'

"I think it's fair to say all of us -- not just Rohnert Park, but the state of California -- we thought this boom economy was going to go on for a long time," said City Councilman Jake Mackenzie, a retired EPA regulator who is the council's lone voice for slow growth.

"We knew what was coming," Mackenzie said. "There were clear signals that if the economy didn't continue to be robust in the late 1990s, there were going to be problems."

Now, hit by the dot-com recession that has gripped Northern California and facing a $3-million deficit that could nearly double when Sacramento makes its final cuts in state aid to local governments, Rohnert Park, about 55 miles north of San Francisco, has opted for a garage sale of city property.

In addition to its stadium, the City Council has put its administrative center on the block, along with the former site of the Sonoma County Wine & Visitors Center, some well sites and a teen center. Officials are open to more suggestions.

The council fired seven of nine department heads, deciding to run the city administration with a finance director, chief of public safety and city manager. Among the measures being considered: mowing the park lawns less often and dimming the park lights earlier

"We're talking about whether we're going to draw the lines on our soccer fields," said city Finance Director Sandy Lipitz, who has struggled to close the projected shortfall in the city's $26-million budget by July 1.

But in a master-planned city that brags of a dozen parks on nearly 90 acres, five public swimming pools and two municipal golf courses, it is the loss of baseball that has hit home.

Doug Jordan, an assistant professor at nearby Sonoma State University, moved from Arlington, Texas, to Rohnert Park last summer and went to eight Crushers games. At night, the bleachers often were as chilly as Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the pitching was so-so, and the independent Western League had been struggling to stay in business. But it was grass-roots baseball set on the pastoral backdrop of the Sonoma Valley.

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'Quality of Life'

The Abominable Sonoman, a grape-stomping Bigfoot, regaled the crowds, and team owner Bob Fletcher stood at the gate personally thanking patrons for coming.

"One of the things the city likes to brag about is its quality of life," Jordan said. "Part of that is minor league baseball without having to go down to San Francisco. It wasn't costing the city anything. I think they have lowered the quality of life permanently in an attempt to find a short-term solution."

From any bleacher seat in the gray, low-rise stadium, the future of small-town baseball was visible last season over the right-field fence, where the bright red letters of a Costco warehouse loomed large.

With growth in property taxes restrained by Proposition 13, officials in cities such as Rohnert Park frequently see commercial growth and expanded sales-tax revenue as the only way to pay for a high-maintenance, middle-class bedroom community.

A patchwork of alphabetically ordered subdivisions, Rohnert Park is a latter-day offspring to the Levittowns of the East Coast. Built on a seed farm, the city was drawn up as a tight federation of neighborhoods where children would have to walk no more than a third of a mile to schools and parks.

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