Cobb Field planning kicks into high gear
By ED KEMMICK
Of The Gazette Staff
Supporters of a new ballpark had a nice surprise waiting for them when they woke up Wednesday - at least those who had managed to get to sleep.
A bond issue of up to $12.5 million to replace Cobb Field was trailing at the polls late Tuesday, when a glitch in the Yellowstone County elections office postponed a final tabulation until Wednesday morning. When all the votes were in, the bond issue was approved by a margin of 21,710 to 19,263, or 53 to 47 percent.
"I really think this is a good step forward for Billings, and not just the baseball community," Woody Hahn said Wednesday morning. Hahn is part of a local group that owns the Billings Mustangs, and he is a member of the Our New Ballpark Committee that campaigned for the bond issue.
His remarks were echoed Wednesday afternoon when a city-appointed steering committee on the new ballpark met for a post-election discussion.
Several members of that committee said they hoped the success of the ballpark issue would have the ripple effect of encouraging people to vote for school levies and other community projects.
"I think this is going to be a steppingstone for the city of Billings. ... This committee did something more than build a ballpark," said committee member Joe Studiner.
Gene Blackwell, acting director of the city Parks and Recreation Department, said the city and its contracted architects would immediately get started on the project. The timeline calls for having a new stadium and playing field completed in time for the Mustangs' first home game in June 2008.
"It's a very, very, very aggressive and short timetable," City Administrator Tina Volek said Tuesday.
Blackwell said CTA Architects Engineers of Billings, working with HNTB Architects of Kansas City, will work on final design plans for the ballpark. Demolition work on the Athletic Park pool, which is just west of Cobb Field, could start in four to six weeks, he said.
Volek said the general obligation bonds could be sold as early as January, with construction of the new stadium beginning next spring. Then, as soon as the Mustangs' baseball season ends next summer, Cobb Field could be demolished and construction of a new sunken field could begin.
Volek said she expects to get a lot of help with the project from the city's newly hired parks director, Michael Whitaker of Springfield, Ohio, who is supposed to start work here next week. Volek said Whitaker has a lot of experience in construction management.
The ballot issue approved by the voters authorizes the City Council to issue up to $12.5 million in bonds for the new ballpark, but the council has pledged to reduce the bond issue by the amount of private donations toward the construction project. Donations have reached $2.11 million, and supporters have promised to continue seeking cash and in-kind donations to further reduce the bond.
City Councilman Vince Ruegamer, who is on the steering committee, said the council is committed to reducing the bond amount as promised. If the architects were to come in with a higher estimate for any reason, he said, the council would either refuse to issue the bonds or it would pare back the project.
The amount of money raised through the general obligation bonds would be paid off over 20 years by a tax on city property owners. Separate donations totaling $300,000 have been made to a permanent maintenance fund for the new ballpark.
The $12.5 million stadium would include 3,500 chair-back seats, grass-berm seating areas overlooking left and right fields, street-level entrances, a sunken playing field, a partial roof over the grandstand, new offices and concessions, a retail store, a picnic area, a 360-degree concourse around the field and a children's playground behind the center-field wall.
Cobb Field is home to the Billings Mustangs, a rookie-league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, as well as the Montana State University-Billings Yellowjackets and two American Legion teams, the Scarlets and the Royals.
Hahn, who also served on the city steering committee, said supporters of the bond issue spent $87,000 in donated money on the campaign, including $30,000 on postage.
Jeff Ballard, chairman of the Billings American Legion board and also a member of the Our New Ballpark Committee, attributed much of the campaign's success to the groundwork laid two years ago, when an even more expensive campaign failed to sway enough voters to approve a bond issue for a new ballpark.
But that ballot issue was paired with a proposal to build a $4.5 million aquatic center in the Heights, and it was defeated largely by voters on the West End. Post-election polling concluded that most of the opposition was related to the pool, not the ballpark, Ballard said, so having the ballpark alone on the ballot this year really helped.
Precinct-by-precinct results from Tuesday's election bore out Ballard's observations. This year, some of the strongest support for the bond issue came from West End precincts, particularly from voters at Parkhill Assembly of God Church, Poly Drive School, Messiah Lutheran Church, Mayflower Congregational Church and Arrowhead School. It also did well at Highland School and Rocky Mountain College polling stations.
Some of the stronger opposition came from voters in the Heights, particularly at Bench Elementary, where it was disapproved by a 320-vote margin, although several precincts in the Heights voted in favor of it.
The bond issue in 2004 also called for a $12.5 million ballpark. To keep the cost of the bond issue down to $12.5 million in the face of rising costs this year, the steering committee and the City Council trimmed a number of features from the plans, including an underground batting cage and a community room and party deck. A scoreboard and skybox suites were also removed from the bond issue price, with plans to add them later through private donations.
The big donations to the construction and maintenance funds this year came in the final weeks before the election. Gaming company owner John Dehler announced that he was giving $1 million to the ballpark campaign, in return for which he will have naming rights to the field. Shortly after that, Wendy's of Montana and First Interstate Bank made donations of $500,000 each - adding up to $2 million that can be deducted from the $12.5 million bond.
Contact Ed Kemmick at email@example.com