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New group seeks vote on proposed stadium

Opponents of a planned baseball stadium on the Clark Fork River are trying to get the project put to a public vote.

Citizens didn't get a chance to consider other ways to develop the site next to McCormick Park before the baseball stadium idea was locked in, opposition representatives Michael Kreisberg and Swain Wolfe told the Missoula City Council on Monday night. They represent a volunteer organization called Play Fair Missoula, which intends to gather the necessary signatures to force a referendum on the matter. Another private group, Play Ball Missoula, recently won approval to build a $8 million ballpark there to house the Pioneer League Missoula Osprey team.

"I come from a city with major stadiums, and nobody wants to live next to them," Kreisberg said before the meeting. "We feel we are stewards of the riverfront. We don't own it, but we feel we should articulate the values of what people will think is nice there in 20 or 50 years, not just right now."

The warning got a cool reception from Mayor Mike Kadas and several members of the City Council.

"While this seems to have become 'my' stadium, many of the things attributed to the mayor were things passed by this council by large majorities," Kadas said. "I think this is a great opportunity for the city, for the investment of $1 million, to revitalize an old mill site … and build a facility for all types of events, to create a new civic space so we can get together and disagree amicably in the future."

"I'm really disappointed," added Ward 2 Councilwoman Jamie Carpenter. "This (council) is 12 people you elected, and 11 of the 12 people on this council voted to move forward on this location. They looked at all the issues and decided to put it there."

Ward 3 Councilwoman Lou Ann Crowley was the only dissenting vote. She said that while the council majority approved the plan, it passed judgment on the mayor's proposals. The community never had a chance to select among possible options at the site, she said.

Wolfe said the city had failed to use an open public process in deciding to participate in the stadium project.

"We wonder what kinds of development it (the stadium) will encourage and preclude down there," Wolfe said. "I would hope this opens the community up to a new process and a new way of considering things like this."

Kreisberg also questioned the safety of the proposed site's main road, Cregg Lane, which passes under a Montana Rail Link trestle. He said the city could end up paying another $1 million or more to fix that problem, and the public should have a vote whether to offer tax dollars to do so.

At Monday's meeting, Ward 1 Councilwoman Lois Herbig questioned Kadas on that point. Kadas said the city has been talking with MRL about it, and that the trestle is not in need of major rehabilitation.

The process of getting the issue on the ballot is complicated, and even then, the matter may be moot. Play Fair Missoula currently doesn't have anything to challenge because the city hasn't passed the law for the public to consider repealing.

This is a chicken-or-egg problem in its own right. Play Fair Missoula and other stadium opponents say the city must first amend a comprehensive urban redevelopment plan to include the stadium project before spending any public money. Kadas and stadium supporters say they had to work out the details and contracts of the project before they could amend any plan to include it.

The contracts have been worked out and City Council has authorized Kadas to sign them, but he hasn't yet. He said he is waiting until the redevelopment plan is amended, in order to defuse any legal challenges. That amendment decision comes before City Council in a public hearing on April 24.

To challenge that decision with a public vote, referendum supporters must get signatures from at least 15 percent of Missoula city's registered voters: roughly 4,600 names. But that only allows the matter to get on the next regular city election ballot, which isn't until November 2001. Stadium proponents intend to start moving dirt this May.

An alternative is to gather names from more than 25 percent of the registered voters (about 7,700 signatures) to qualify for a special election. If Play Fair Missoula does so within 30 days of the City Council's decision to amend the plan, the amendment is suspended until a public vote occurs.

Kadas argues that the plan amendment is legally unnecessary, and in any case, only applies to money the city would spend on public improvements such as trails and parking lots. Private donations are to provide the estimated $6.5 million more needed to actually build the stadium and playing field.

Wolfe said Play Fair Missoula has about 20 active members and enough money to mount legal battles if needed.

"We just think anything that has this size impact on Missoula should have had a more public process," Wolfe said. "We're certainly not doing this out of joy."

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