Vote was unanimous

Discounting threats of citizens' action, the Missoula City Council tied up its final loose ends in the effort to get a professional baseball stadium built next to McCormick Park.

The council Monday night unanimously approved accepting donation of the former Champion International Corp. log yard along the Clark Fork River where the 3,500-seat stadium is to be built. Council members also voted 11-1 for an amendment to the city's urban renewal plan that OKs spending about $1 million on parking lots, trails, and public road improvements at the site.

A citizens' group called Fair Play Missoula has threatened a petition drive that could suspend the amendment until a public vote can be held on the stadium project. At least 4,217 registered Missoula city voters must sign the petition within 30 days to suspend the council's amendment until the vote can be held, which could be as late as the next City Council election in 2001.

Fair Play Missoula spokesman Swain Wolfe said it would be illegal to start work on the project if the amendment is suspended. He proposed that the stadium project be moved to Missoula County property near Missoula International Airport, where there would be less opposition from nearby residents.

But Mayor Mike Kadas countered that suspension would only block city-funded parts of the project.

"This petition will ensure we don't have trails and parking for the facility," Kadas said. "That seems rather silly."

Fair Play Missoula attorney Alan Blakley said last week that when the city decided to accept donation of the Champion land, it should have made a public request for proposals and considered all possible development ideas for the site. Instead, Blakley argued, the city gave extensive review to a single plan offered by another private group, Play Ball Missoula, which arranged for the donation and wanted to build the ballpark there.

Amending the urban renewal plan should not have occurred until all other ideas were considered, Blakley said. That's why Fair Play Missoula hopes to block the amendment until a public vote can take place.

At Monday's hearing, Kadas said he believed those legal challenges were resolved by separating city spending from the actual stadium construction. Wolfe said he hadn't heard differently from his previous conversations with Blakley, who was out of town Monday.

Ward 2 Councilman Jim McGrath said he sympathized with residents who believed the public process had been "put off kilter a bit." But, he added, the stadium project appears to have properly followed a different but legal path.

"This was presented as a redevelopment project would be: 'I have a line on a piece of property - would you (the city) help me develop it?' " McGrath said. "Is this the best spot for this? We have never really addressed that."

The arrangement as it now stands makes a partnership between Play Ball Missoula and the city. Play Ball Missoula has promised in contracts to pay for stadium construction (estimated at $7 million) and to manage it for the city. It intends to lease it to the Pioneer League Missoula Osprey ballclub. The construction funds are supposed to come from private sources.

The city has agreed to accept the stadium and its land as public facilities, and has some rights to use it during the off-season. It also agreed to acquire a small piece of land next to the stadium site for a parking lot. It currently is negotiating whether it can buy this land or must condemn it (but still pay for it). And it plans to provide the already mentioned parking, trails and roads.

Play Ball Missoula officials have planned to start clearing ground for the project in May. They must have the field ready for action by the start of the 2001 Pioneer League baseball season to keep the Osprey team in Missoula.

If the petition is successful within the 30-day deadline, the City Council has the option of calling its own special election on the matter. However, the opportunity to put that on the June 6 primary ballot already has passed.

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