Portland Looks To Bring Pro Baseball Back

PORTLAND, ORE—After two years out of the Portland market, professional baseball is coming back with a vengeance.

The Northwest League has already approved the Yakima Bears' plan to move from central Washington to Hillsboro, Ore., a fast-growing Portland suburb. And another Portland suburb has plans of its own to bring in a team.

The Hillsboro city council has approved financing on a new stadium, both sides have signed the lease and groundbreaking is set for this fall, with plans to open play next June. All parties are waiting on final approval from Minor League Baseball.

"It's very exciting going from one of the smallest markets to one of the biggest," Bears general manager K.L. Wombacher said. "The Portland market hasn't had baseball for two summers, and so it feels like people are really yearning for it. It's a huge opportunity for us and we're ready to make the most of it."

Northwest League president Bob Richmond seconded Wombacher's excitement.

"That's a good market over there with a lot of fans with no official baseball there now," he said. "We think it's going to be a very good move for the league and the community."

Wombacher said the Bears started looking at Portland following the departure of the city's Pacific Coast League franchise after the 2010 season. He said the team spent the better part of two years trying to come up with a plan to renovate Yakima County Stadium, where the Bears currently play, or to build a new stadium in the area.

"Ultimately we just realized that times are tough with public dollars these days and there wasn't the money or the will to make it happen," he said.

Last year the team looked at moving to Vancouver, Wash., just north of Portland, but was unable to reach a deal. Initial discussions with Hillsboro took place last summer and accelerated this spring when the city council agreed to pick up the cost of the stadium, estimated at $13.4 million-$15.2 million.

"Hillsboro had a lot fewer hurdles than a lot of the other jurisdictions had or have," according to Steve Greagor, the city's director of parks and recreation and the chief negotiator on the deal. "The financial strength of the city is really pretty healthy, in part due to the (city's) continuing growth and the investment of corporations like Intel."

With a population of about 100,000, Hillsboro is now Oregon's fifth-largest city. The Portland metropolitan area is home to more than 2.2 million people, making it the largest metropolitan area in the United States without professional baseball. Currently the closest team is the Northwest League's Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, who are about 45 minutes south of Portland.

While Yakima's shift figures to create a rivalry with the Volcanoes, another potential move could further jumble the Oregon baseball scene. The city of Milwaukie, Ore., just southeast of Portland and about 25 miles from Hillsboro, is also in discussions with the Northwest League to try and secure a team for the 2014 season.

Richmond would not comment that possibility, but Milwaukie community development director Kenny Asher said he was optimistic about ongoing negotiations.

"We have a July 31 deadline to secure a commitment from a team," he said. "We're making progress."

Should the city come to terms with a team, Asher said the plan would be to build a 5,000-seat stadium that would serve as a visible entry point for the suburb of approximately 20,000 people. The city council is scheduled to consider the matter in August.

"The vote in August is pretty significant because it basically sets up a public vote for financing in November," Asher said. "City council has been very supportive, but the deal hinges on support from a majority of voters."

Wombacher said the Bears haven't evaluated the potential impact of a team in Milwaukie but applauded the city for its efforts. Greagor said the move could benefit both teams.

"It's an intriguing prospect to have the potential of a crosstown rivalry," he said. "We'll see what happens in Milwaukie. I don't think it would be detrimental to baseball in Hillsboro, and in fact, it would probably be beneficial to the entire Portland area."

Wombacher said the team is working quickly to establish a new identity and hopes to have a new name and logo as soon as possible.

P-Nats Unveil Ballpark Plan

Art Silber's pursuit of a new ballpark for his Potomac Nationals franchise may soon come to an end.

After years of near misses, the longtime owner appears to have a deal that could transform the long-struggling P-Nats into the Carolina League's flagship franchise.

Silber announced the framework of a public-private partnership to build a new ballpark as part of a commercial and residential development just off Interstate 95 in Woodbridge, Va. The new park would be about five miles from Potomac's current home at Pfitzner Stadium and just 40 minutes down the road from its big league affiliate in Washington.

Silber said he will finance the $25 million construction cost for the new ballpark. Roadside Development, the company that is developing the area around the ballpark, will buy the land and lease it to Silber for what he says is a nominal amount. Prince William County will pay for various infrastructure costs, while the state of Virginia will pay $15 million to build a parking garage that will accommodate more than 1,000 cars and double as a commuter lot. It was the lack of parking that stalled the project last summer.

Silber estimates the project will cost around $50 million all told, which would surpass Winston-Salem's BB&T Ballpark ($48.7 million) as the most expensive Class A ballpark ever built.

"It's going to be dynamite," Silber said. The ballpark "has a shot" of opening in time for the 2014 season, but he said such an aggressive timeline may not be realistic.

Local officials at the press conference cautioned that the ballpark is a part of the much larger Stonebridge at Potomac project that has many moving parts. But Silber said its construction is not dependent on any other development.

When asked how he plans to pay for the ballpark, Silber responded dryly, "I'm going to write a check." Silber, however, is counting on the ballpark's prime location to help him land a significant naming-rights deal to offset construction costs.

"This area has 400,000 cars a day that go by 95. There's a supermarket (nearby) with 50,000 receipts a week. It's in a major town center," he said. "So we believe we're going to get a good naming-rights deal."

The impact of a new ballpark for the Potomac franchise cannot be overstated. Pfitzner is essentially the oldest venue in the Carolina League—Lynchburg's City Stadium opened in 1939 but went through a complete renovation in 2003—and it lacks the appeal and amenities to lure fans. The population of northern Virginia is huge, but Potomac remains one of the Carolina League's worst draws, ranking sixth in the eight-team circuit this season with a 2,904 average.

That will likely change at the new ballpark, which is slated to include an open concourse, luxury suites, and several group seating and eating options—including a crab shack beyond the outfield wall.

The ballpark would also be a significant upgrade for players and staff, with room beneath the seating bowl for indoor batting cages, pitching tunnels, a fitness center and spacious clubhouses.

"I'm really excited about it," Silber said. "There's going to be a tremendous amount of space."

—Josh Leventhal